Opening lines of books. So short. So simple. So important and hard to get right. You need them to hook your reader and pull them in. To make it so that reader has to read on. How do you do that?
One of my friends has Yoda for a grandmother. Okay, not really. But that image came to mind when she told me about the woman who taught her the first and best writing lesson ever. Having a close relationship, she wasn’t put off when her grandmother said, “Why don’t you begin your letters with something other than ‘hi, how are you? I’m fine.’ You want to begin in an interesting manner so your letter recipient will want to read on.”
Opening Lines of Books, what we know
One thing that gets drilled into writers’ heads is to hook the reader from the first sentence. Not only is the first sentence vital, the intrigue must continue on to the first paragraph, the first page, the first scene, the first chapter. All must be grabbers. With such intense competition today, it’s vital for an agent, editor, and reader to immediately be drawn into the story. In this age of e-books, it’s even more important to snag readers. An e-book owner can download a sample and at the end of it, make the decision to press a button and buy the book…or not.
We’ve all seen the cartoons of Snoopy writing with a typewriter on the top of his doghouse. “It was a dark and stormy night,” he begins. What follows is a response as to why this is a boring way to start. Just what Snoopy doesn’t want. A good lesson for us all: if your reader doesn’t want it, neither do you!
Seems Grandmother knew exactly what she was talking about. Interesting a reader—whether you are writing a letter, an article, a short story, novel, song, play, even (and especially) a blog or e-mail—is the key to getting the attention your writing deserves in this day of the deluge of the written word. There are so many demands for your reader’s attention and choices in what they have to read, you have to shine to get attention. So how to do this?
How to write great opening lines of books?
Does it have to start with big Hollywood-style explosions, angst, or mass chaos?
Not at all.
A great first line can establish mood, raise a question in the reader’s mind, or make a unique and unexpected statement, all while speaking directly to the reader in a compelling narrative voice. Do any, or better yet all of these and your reader will get hooked and continue to read on.
Some of my favorite opening lines of books
“It rained toads the day the White Council came to town.”- Summer Knight by Jim Butcher
“The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves.”- White Oleander by Janet Fitch
What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass.” –In the Woods by Tana French
“It’s almost impossible to be thrown out of the Garda Siochána. You really have to put your mind to it. –The Guards by Ken Bruen
“Today they will find her body. I know how it will happen.”–The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen
Pick out some of your favorite opening lines of books.
Why are you drawn in? What questions are raised? What is unique and surprising?
Now do this with your own writing.
A little thought about the beginning will make the difference between someone reading or passing over. After you write that first draft, go back to the beginning and find a way to enthrall your reader from the first sentence…writing time well spent!
More on How to Start a Novel.
Award-winning novelist Kathy Steffen teaches fiction writing and speaks at writing programs across the country. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, Between the Lines. Her books, FIRST THERE IS A RIVER, JASPER MOUNTAIN and THEATER OF ILLUSION are available online and at bookstores everywhere.