Sunday, March 27, 2011

Fishing for readers with a three pronged hook...

From Wikipedia: The rule of three is a principle in writing which suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. The reader is also more likely to consume information if it is written in groups of threes. A series of three is often used to create a progression in which tension is created, then built up, and finally released.

Most of us, as writers, have heard this rule. Now let's put a twist on it, and apply it to the first three lines in our novels. Do our first three sentences: "create a progression in which tension is created, then built up, and finally released?"

Yes, it's our first line which has to hook an agent/editor's attention. But say we write a great first line, and let them down with the second one. Will they read on? My theory is, tie those first three sentences together ... hold the reader through them -- with voice, tension, and a revelation/release that will leave them emotionally moved or mentally intrigued. When you do this, you're setting a tone for the whole story, and your reader will  read on in hopes for another taste of that magic.

Here are three examples of great three-sentence novel beginnings that do just that...

1. The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux (literary classic horror):

The Opera ghost really existed. He was not, as was long believed, a creature of the imagination of the artists, the superstition of the managers, or a product of the absurd and impressionable brains of the young ladies of the ballet, their mothers, the box-keepers, the cloak-room attendants or the concierge. Yes, he existed in flesh and blood, although he assumed the complete appearance of a real phantom; that is to say, of a spectral shade.

2. Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, by Maggie Stiefvater (YA fantasy):

I was used to being the hunter. If I saw something I wanted, I stalked it, smelled it, made it mine. By "it" I mean "him," of course.

3.The Dead-Tossed Waves, by Carrie Ryan (YA zombie horror)

The story goes that even after the Return they tried to keep the roller coasters going. They said it reminded them of the before time. When they didn't have to worry about people rising from the dead, when they didn't have to build fences and walls and barriers to protect themselves from the masses of Mudo contstantly seeking human flesh.

Each of these beginnings radiate voice, as well as intrigue, surprise, and captivate the reader. They make you want to know more, dare you to keep reading.

If you're willing to share, I'd love to see the three pronged hook you fish for readers with. Post it in a comment below. And to play fair, I'll share, too (despite the butterflies in my stomach that always visit when I know someone is reading my stuff--eep). In keeping with the trinity theme of this post, I'll give you the beginning three from three of my books, each with very different voices and premises.

1. Splintered (YA fantasy):

I’ve been collecting bugs since I was eleven. It's the only way I can stop their whispers. Sticking a pin through the gut of an insect shuts it up pretty quick.

2. Untitled WIP (YA paranormal):

Back home, I have a poster on my wall of a rose that’s bleeding. Its petals are white, and red liquid oozes from its heart, thick and glistening warm. Only, if you look very close, you can see that the droplets are actually coming from above where a little girl’s wrist—camouflaged by a cluster of leaves and petals—has been pricked by thorns as she reached inside to catch a monarch.

3. Forgotten Silences (literary gothic love story):

Throughout my childhood, my mama sang to me. In her gardens, in the midst of foxgloves and hollyhocks taller than my five-year-old head, her voice took wing—a melody lovelier than a nightingale, more moving than a storm-crested sea. Now that I am deaf, I’m haunted by two regrets: that I didn’t memorize the sound of her voice … and the eternal absence of song in my life.

Okay, your turn! Surprise, enthrall, or tantalize me. I'm closing my eyes, and counting to three...


  1. This is the first paragraph of a short story I'm working on. It's an interesting thing that could grow into something longer.

    "She fingered the ticket stub in her coat pocket. The rough edges where it had been torn from a long roll were worn to a soft, almost velvety smoothness. She pulled at the hem of her skirt with her free hand."

  2. What an interesting concept! I've never heard of it before - thanks so much for opening me up to the idea. I'll be rethinking a few story openings, knowing the rule of three approach.

    And wow, that last one of yours, Forgotten Silences, was fantastic. Definitely left me eager for more.

    Seeing you were brave and shared yours, I'd better do the same...

    Tabby’s secret was in danger. She stationed herself in the dead centre of the doorway, flashing the social worker an extra-large smile while she twisted her silk scarf on the side of her throat, French-style. Her manner would not give anything away.

  3. This is a new writing pal from QT! I love your openers, Anita. Love them all SO MUCH. Your openers make me want to read more -- I love reading beautifully-crafted sentences. If the writing is compelling, I can connect with characters and plots I normally never would. My god niece would love your style, too. I just know it. :)

    Well, here's mine, from my contemporary romance (single title), and I am still not happy with the opening at all:

    Weddings and political campaigns had a lot of things in common. In a rush to a glorious finish, both were fraught with a flurry of social events, private personal breakdowns and the most outrageous of lies. Sabrina March had lived through her share of both, but much preferred the latter; if she had to be in situations that required glad-handing and imbibing copious amounts of alcohol, she felt more comfortable knowing the candidate she backed supported loftier goals than scoring every place setting from the gift registry.

  4. Oooh, I'd post mine, but it doesn't follow your three sentence rule, it's more of a five-sentence intro, but it does follow the rule of three in another way...I'm fond of this tidy little rule.

  5. Hi Anita,
    I wasn't aware of this rule either! Thanks for the lesson ;o) My openings pale in comparison, but I guess if everyone else can be brave, so can I.

    1) Women's fiction project (currently querying)

    Of all the emotions that had left me alone in the darkness, I missed anger the most. I missed the anger I felt towards God for taking away the greatest man I’d ever known, towards the doctors and nurses for not doing more, and towards the people at my husband’s funeral who sat around laughing and conversing as if they were at a wedding reception instead of a young father’s funeral. The passion and conviction I felt with that anger had at least made me feel alive.

    2) YA Paranormal - WIP (VERY much a WIP ;o)

    I could feel their eyes on me. I always felt their eyes on me. I dressed the way I did to keep the guys from gawking at me, but as far as the girls were concerned, I might as well had a large, red bulls-eye on me.

  6. Kayeleen~ Love that opening! Very tactile and sensorial. You can go so many places with that! Oh, and so can your character... ;-)

    Thanks so much, Tamara! FORGOTTEN SILENCES is the next book my agent will be sending out. So maybe you'll get to read it one of these days! Loved your opening, too! Tabby sounds like a great character, and way to start it off with a bang. We know she has a secret and now we're dying to know it, especially after watching the way she's playing at being coy and clandestine. ;-)

    Wow, Melissa, thank you so much! And how nice to "meet" you finally. ;-) You'll have to send your god niece this way. Is she a writer too, or just a reader? I thought your opening was great! That first line ROX! And you tied it all together w/the last one. So you've definitely got this three sentence hook down pat.

    Anna, wah! I've been dying to see some of your writing. You could go ahead and post them, you know. Just cuz. And yep, I'm a big fan of the three rule myself. :-)

    Angela~ Your examples do not pale at all! Those are both EXCELLENT. The first one is beautiful, and is a prime example of the rule of three working to bring about a strong and emotive opening. And the second one, LOL. I can so relate to this poor girl! And of course now I'm dying to know what she's wearing. Well done!

  7. French-style. I love that Tamara.

    This is a fun post, Anita. Here's my opening from Summer on the Short Bus (YA Contemp.)

    Less than forty-eight hours ago I was in the comfort of my room, enjoying a conversation with my best friend about those darling red patent Miu Miu ballet flats we had seen in the Neiman’s catalog, when my dad storms in and single-handedly destroys my entire summer. The summer before my senior year. The summer I turn eighteen!

  8. Hey there, Bethany! Wonderful opening. Can never go wrong starting where a teenage girl's world is about to come crumbling down. LOL

    Thanks so much for sharing!

  9. I loved this idea! And I do love the opening of "Forgotten Silences". If I found this book in the bookstore and read the first page, I'd buy it for sure!

    Now, I can't share my opening yet, it's just a first draft, not ready to see daylight!

  10. Thanks so much, EEV! Guess I need to tell my agent to get on that pronto. Haahaa.

    Well, okay about yours still being too young to come out and play. Maybe when it's ready, you can stop back in and post it! I'd love to see your writing. ^.^

  11. Great post! That's a really interesting theory. I love the first sentences of your first and second book. I'd definitely keep reading!

  12. *sits up, nose against monitor**
    Holy Cannoli.
    Excellent post.
    Your site is going on my Faves list of Highly Recommended bloggers.

  13. Hey Hannah! Thanks for stopping by, and for your nice compliments! ;-)

    Huntress, WOW! Thanks so much! Aren't you going to post a few sentences? I already know you have the three rule down pat after reading your awesome and intriguing first paragraph the other day. :-)

  14. Love those first lines--both the ones from other books and yours. The bug one made me squirmy in the best possible way! Your style is so lyrical, but not overburdened. What a balance!

    I should do this. My first lines always need work!

  15. A favorite sentence/line from your ms would be fun post, too!

  16. Katey, LOL! I made you squirm. Nice. And thanks for the lovely compliment about my prose style!

    Bethany, great idea! I'll have to do a post on that one of these days...unless you beat me to it. *hint hint*

  17. Subtle.
    I'll recruit a few more stalkers first--but I'll do it!

  18. Ha. Sounds like a plan, Bethany. ;-) I look forward to it!

  19. Ooh, I love the opening of Splintered! I am afraid I was a horrid little girl who stuck pins in bugs (at the local nature center), as they fascinated me. But not because they kept whispering to me. I was just a grubby little science-minded imp. I'm surprised I haven't been punished like "The Ant Bully" by now.
    And, the rule of three is absolutely can see comedians use it all the time! "Three! It's a magic number!"

  20. Oooh fun, but I don't think I do it right, lol. My first three lines sometimes fall into this by accident, but mostly - in the immortal lines of Cartman - I DO WHAT I WANT!

    To err, varying degrees of success.

    DUST TO DUST (YA fantasy) - For my sixteenth birthday, my oldest brother tried to kill me again. I was in Starbucks getting a celebratory scone when the shadows peeled off the walls and came for me. I cursed and dove for the floor.

    GOOD INTENTIONS (adult urban fantasy) - I was still kneeling over the coroner's dead body when the aging security guard found us. Also, I was naked. In hindsight, its not hard to see how he might have jumped to the wrong conclusions.

    SHADES OF ADRIAN GRAY (YA contemporary) - This is how the story ends. A room with a view: three walls coated with tacky beige wallpaper and a fourth with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the bay. Hardwood floors that protest under heels, voicing echoes that bounce amongst the rafters overhead.

    Hmm. I could see a couple ways to tweak those to fit the rule of three. Fun exercise Anita!

  21. Thanks Jenny! LOL about you and the bugs. You never know, karma may be waiting in the wings (pun intended) to give you a taste of your own torturous medicine one day. Beware of flying swarms of bugs, my friend. ha!

    BTW, where's your first three sentences? I'm dying to read some of your writing after seeing how awesome your blog posts are.

  22. And PS, that just made me want to read Splintered even more! It looks so awesome!

  23. Thanks Kalen! And WOW, your story beginnings ALL rock! I want to read each one of them. ;-) But I think you really nailed the three sentence rule with your adult urban fantasy, in a big way. And made me laugh out loud in the process!

  24. What a fun post, Anita! My current one doesn't quite fit the 3 as you said them. But I'll go ahead and post them (plus a bonus fourth to finish that paragraph lol)

    YA Magical Realism/Historical:

    I’m trapped.

    I concentrate on the monitor in front of me, scanning through the in-flight entertainment, and attempt to tune out Jenna. As if that’s even possible. When she gets this excited, I swear sometimes only dogs can hear her.

    Finished manuscript, YA Contemp Romance, 2nd Type of Girl:

    The cleavage spilling out of my top heralded the beginning of Operation Sex Appeal. I turned sideways, adjusted the neckline, and alternated slouching and straightening as tall as my five-foot frame could stand, but the fidgeting didn’t make a lick of difference. There was no hiding them now.

    Thanks for sharing yours--You write BEAUTIFULLY!! Can't wait for all of them to hit the shelves so I can read more :-)

  25. YA Contemporary Fantasy:

    Cassandra’s heart is a bird inside her chest. Its wings beat in time with her running feet on the concrete path. She knows what’s going on – just as surely as you don’t, not yet – and she’s trying to run away from that knowledge.

  26. Rachel, yours are wonderful, too! And I'm glad your posted in spite of the number of sentences. Sometimes it's impossible to fit that rise and fall into the three sentence stricture, just like your character from the YA cont romance and her blouse. Ha! Operation Sex Appeal. I love that! ;-)

    Thedrellum, WOW. That's amazing! You wove those three sentences flawlessly together. What genre, BTW? It's so beautiful and mysterious at the same time. You have a very lyrical voice. Lovely. Thanks for sharing!

  27. Thanks, Anita!

    The manuscript (THE DREAM THIEF) is a young adult contemporary fantasy. I'm not sure that genre helps define it since contemporary fantasy seems conflated with urban fantasy and paranormals in general. The fantasy in my book involves a creature that eats the reality of children and an unreal world parallel with the real one.

  28. You have such a great point about fantasy being an umbrella term now. That caused me a lot of grief when searching for an agent because so many take "fantasy," but then mine ended up too fantastical. I was like, "wha?"

    I LOVE the premise of this book. It's just my kind of read. I hope you can get it out there soon so we can all devour it! :-)

  29. Thedrellum, that sounds awesome! I've had a similar time trying to decide how best to pitch Dust to Dust, as its technically 'urban fantasy' but that brings witches, vampires and werewolves to mind when none are in it. So I've been calling it contemporary fantasy, which sounds pretentious for some reason, and who knew it was this tricky? LOL.

  30. Anita,

    My god niece is an avid reader -- you really don't find too many kids these days who are into books. I found out early on that it was pointless to give my little cousins and other friends' kids books, because they would gather dust. Not this one. She's an amazing thirteen-year-old, wise in a way that I was not at her age (and NO, I'm not prejudiced, LOL!). She'd totally "get" your work.

    Thanks for the kudos on my first lines. I'm not happy with them quite yet (what writer really is satisfied with his or her work?). Sadly, when one must make a favorable impression on an agent or publisher, it's those first few lines that matter. I've been writing professionally for more than 20 years, and I *still* struggle with "ledes." These suckers do NOT get easier with experience! Blah ...

  31. Kalen: Thanks for the compliment. Yeah, contemporary fantasy does sound a bit pretentious, but at least it leaves the gates wide open for whatever kind of fantasy you want.

    Anita: That being said, how was your novel "too fantastical"?

  32. Melissa~ your god-niece sounds just like my niece. She's 16 and has the literary soul of someone my age (not telling how old that is--ha!). And she's already written two MG novels and is working on her first YA. Not published yet, but she's certainly headed in that direction. Don't you love that passion for the written word? Sigh... I can't wait for your girlie to get to read my books someday! That would make me deliriously happy. :-)

    Thedrellum~ in my YA, my hero and heroine end up in Wonderland--well, a very warped version of Wonderland--and some agents said they didn't like the heavy world building. I think they were looking for something more paranormal, you know, like some paranormal beings living in our world alongside the humans, instead of having a realm of their own. BUT, when the right agents read it, they loved that part! So I'm glad I stuck by my guns.

  33. Hey Anita!

    This is LMK from QT, here are the first three lines...

    Cael hated history class. He especially hated being lied to. Yes, his professors lied, so did his parents, relatives, tutors and just about every other adult he ever knew.

  34. Hi LMK! Welcome! It's so nice to finally "meet" you.

    Wonderful first three lines! And this must be a YA. Great voice. Sounds like he's in for a lot of character growth. :-) Thanks so much for sharing!

  35. Anita: That sounds really interesting. I always like when writers take other people's worlds and adapt them to their own ends. Philip Jose Farmer does this a lot -- I'm thinking especially of A Barnstormer in Oz since that's also jumping off from a children's book.

    The main problem agents have had with my novel is the narrative voice. It's intrusive -- I always end up comparing it to Lemony Snicket -- but it's at least as much a part of the novel as the plot is, if that makes sense.

  36. Yes, that does make sense, Thedrellum. Voice makes the novel. I would think that a strong narrative would be something appealing. Especially when being compared to Lemony Snicket! It really sounds like you just haven't found YOUR agent yet. There has to be one out there who that will appeal to.

  37. I'm getting on those three sentences...yes siree. I hate sharing any REAL writing online. I will gird my loins. And choose the work I'd like to share.
    BTW, I added you to my links on my homepage (yay!) but I need to figure out how you set it up, so that it updates in real time? I shall master the technology!

  38. You go, brave girl! I know you can do it. :-)

    BTW, I need to email you...

    I will, soon!

  39. Oh, and thanks so much for adding me to your sidebar! If you can't figure that updating thing let me know and I'll try to walk you through it.

  40. WOW! Look at all these comments!
    Plus, I don't think I've ever heard of the rule of three before, but it's genius! Your sentences are amazing and fit right in with those other ones.
    Thanks for the examples and lesson!
    I'll be e-mailing later...

  41. Hi Jessie!! Wow, it made me smile so big to see your little face picture. LOL

    Thanks for the compliments on my sentences, although you've already read most of them. Haahaa.

    Glad you learned something new today! ;-)

  42. Absolutely love this post! I know I am actively seeking an agent so why would I be scared to post my first three sentences? Maybe because your post shows me that I need to comb through my ms once again! But hey this only makes it better! I just started diving into my research for my WIP and these rules will definitely help with the beginning of that! Could you post rules for sentence 4 through a million that way this story will be perfect and alot easier with you holding my hand. This was an excellent post just proving how reading fellow writers blogs will only help motivate and excel your own work. Thanks for the tips'

  43. Hey there Jessica! Thank you, nice friend!

    Oh, but I'd LOVE to post rules for all one million of the words in our novels. ;-)

    Can you even imagine it? A one million word novel? I wonder if there is such a thing. Hmm. I feel a post coming on. BTW, if I find one, maybe you can review it. LOL

  44. Ooh, I love this. Here's the beginning of my WIP. I was very excited to see it was already in 3 sentences! Yay!

    If it’s possible to die of sheer boredom, then my grandparents are trying to kill me. Every time my life gets even slightly exciting they step right in to snuff it out. But I'm done being obedient all the time—this is my life and I want to live it.

  45. That's a great one, Jenn (aka girl with a shiny new agent!). Smartie! You already use the rule of three and didn't even realize it! LOL.

    And that opening line is amazing! :) Thanks so much for sharing.

  46. Thanks, Anita! I really liked your openings, too! Very cool! :)

  47. This is a great post, Anita - I had never heard of the rule of three, and it really helps to think about your opening this way. And what a lot of wonderful first lines! My novel doesn't really start with three first sentences - the opening chapter is short and builds slowly - but, for what it's worth, here are mine:

    The boy jerked his chin at the girl holding the holocam: he was ready. She balanced the camera on a bit of broken wall and focused on the boy, who began speaking just after she started to record. His lips seemed pale to her - he had been gnawing them - and his eyes were glassy.

    I'm here from Twitter, and I'm sure I'll be back!

  48. I am just in love with your writing, Anita. Le sigh.

    I actually haven't heard of this rule (I must be living under a rock still). It's a cool concept. Must employ it in my own writing..hmm.. :)