Opening Sentences

December 30, 2011

Your cover caught their eye. Your short and sweet blurb on the dust jacket commanded their attention. Now, they're about to do what a number of book perusers do—they're going to read your opening sentence.

This is no trivial matter. If the first sentence is boring and unimaginative, your prospective reader will likely put your book down and walk away. Good sentences reach out of the page, grab you, and yank you in. 

Those opening lines sold me on this novel.

LITERARY FICTION—Opening sentences should convey a universal struggle.

I first saw this opening passage on an e-reader screen in an advertisement. I liked it so much that I googled the opening line on my phone in hopes that I would discover the author. (It's from Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.)

The opening lines are relatable, and the struggle depicted therein is universal. We all age whether we want to or not; the passage of time is inevitable. These opening lines capture a struggle of identity and existence, a human condition that affects just about all of us. By conveying a universal struggle, readers can instantly connect with the story on a personal level.

But what if your novel falls more on the commercial side of the spectrum? The very essence of literary fiction is to provide commentary on something far more important than the story itself—but unlike its literary counterpart, commercial fiction can't draw interest with universal themes alone.

Opening sentences should convey the overall tone of your novel.

To help the reader know what to expect from your novel, let the mood and tone of your story shine through in the opening sentences.

The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.

The opening line suggests this story is different; bold. The world is unpleasant and the narrator has a sense of humor about it, so it stands to reason the rest of the book will maintain a similar tone and perspective. (Uglies by Scott Westerfield.)

Congratulations. The fact that you're reading this means you've taken one giant step closer to surviving till your next birthday.

This is the opening line from James Patterson's Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment, and its hook is obvious. Urgency. Max is reaching out to you, the reader, through the page. A connection—albeit an abrupt one—is quickly established.

Opening sentences should be interesting and/or clever.

  • They said morning sickness would be tough. Judging by the fact I just puked up an alien, I'd have to say they were right.
  • Insanity is when you swore you put the pizza boy six feet under last night, only to wake up to him banging on your window and begging for brains.

The number one element of a good opening line? Surprise. It sets the stage for an enjoyable read.

What is your favorite opening line? What do you look for in the first page of a book? Do you use the first few lines to gauge if a book is worth your time?

1 comment:

  1. "It was a dark and stormy night..." :)

    Yay for the new blog!


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