◎ Opening Lines

October 18, 2012

The following article was originally published 12/28/11 outside of blog.katmellon.com.

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 about to read your opening sentence.

This is no trivial thing.

Your opening sentences are, after your cover, what sells your book. If the first sentence is boring, unimaginative, and not engaging, your prospective reader will put down your book and walk away. Good sentences reach out of the page and grab you, and then they yank you in. Such is the case for Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

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. The last thing I expected was Water for Elephants. Regardless, these opening lines had me sold on this novel in an instant.

From the get-go, you have a lot of questions, but firstly, an observation: WOW, that narrator is old. That must mean that he/she's got quite a story to tell. And the uncertainty of ages? Now THAT'S interesting. And why one or the other? Why does he/she say that? Is life really that demented at that age that three years can be dismissed so easily?

Opening lines should raise questions.

Here's an opening sentence from a friend's manuscript, which I have reworked to make more pronounced.
Original: The bright sun shining through the window in my musty old room woke me up.  
Revised:  What woke me up that morning was the sun shining straight through the window and into my eyes.
In the revised version, the reader knows that particular day was a defining moment for the narrator. Something big happened on that day. Furthermore, a reader could assume that the narrator does not have curtains, a possible reflection on the economic status of the family or a reflection on the time period. It also makes the reader wonder what the narrator is usually woken up by. Also, why was this day more important than the others before it? Why start here? What is the narrator going to do now? How does the trouble begin?

First off, writing this damn thing is one of the dumbest, asinine things I’ve done yet. Give a demented monkey a keyboard, and it’ll tap out a load of shit. Give me a keyboard and I’ll do the same, though I’m willing to bet the monkey would still do better than me. 
Why is it dumb? Why does this kid have such a bad attitude and such low self-confidence? What's his deal? What other dumb stuff has he done? What exactly is he writing? Why is he writing it?
The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.
This story is different. It's bold. The setting is unpleasant, and the narrator has a decent sense of humor about it. (This is the opening line of The 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.
We all know this one, and its effectiveness is obvious. Urgency. Max is literally demanding your attention. It's an aggressive tactic, but for YA fiction, it works. The character is sharing vital information with you. A connection, although an abrupt one, has been established.

Opening lines should reflect the novel's overall spirit and/or theme.

I'm going to bash my own novel, Darkness Surrounding.
“Pass it here!” Toby yelled as he cut across the dark asphalt basketball court. I lobbed the ball over Sean’s head and watched Toby effortlessly execute a windmill dunk, which caused the net’s metal chains to shake and clatter. 
Thrilling, right? Well, not quite. This first sentence is deceptive, as the book is not about basketball. While you're thrown into the action from the get-go, it's not the action that matters. I think that starting with the pick-up game between Zanni, Toby, and Sean wasn't the most brilliant idea to ever enter my noggin.

The point I'm trying to make? Let the core of your novel shine through in the opening sentence. If I had opened with a passage of leaves and autumn and death and tragedy, that would have been more representative of my novel as a whole on a symbolic level. 

Opening lines should be attention-grabbing. 
  • The bird, which I had observed and fed since noon that day from a park bench, flew straight into a passing car and under the tires of the one behind it.
  • When I threw up an alien that morning, I knew something was wrong.
  • I buried the pizza boy before my sister dropped by with my nephew.
  • I cannot fully recall the moment that, to this day, sits at the very edge of my consciousness.
The number one element of a good opening line? Surprise. Blast 'em with a line that will catch them off guard and make them do a double-take. Everyone (generally) loves a bold statement at the opening of anything -- a film, a novel, a speech, etc. It sets the stage for an enjoyable read.

Tl;dr. Your opening line should be representative of your novel as a whole, be surprising and/or gripping, and should raise questions for the reader to encourage them to keep reading.

What is your all-time favorite opening line?

Interesting link: http://www.storyispromise.com/twilight.htm

1 comment:

  1. This is a great post. I just looked back on some of the opening lines that I've written. Most of them are okay, some better than others. My favorite opening line? I've never really payed attention or kept track. I liked the ones you mentioned though, especially the threw up an alien one. That's a book I'd read. ;)


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