What Makes a Great Opening Line?

There are many opinions and ideas of what an opening line should include/accomplish but there is one thing everyone can agree on; an opening line should intrigue the reader enough that they want to continue reading. Trying to figure out how to do that is where the opinions come in.

Here are a few things to consider when drafting that first line of your story.

7462160886_5fe0633a2b_bIntrigue reader to go on

The opening line should leave the reader with questions and those questions. Who is this character? Why are they in this predicament? Where are they going? What just happened? Of course an outstanding story can follow a poor opening line (or a poor story follow an outstanding first line) but as a writer, you want to hook your reader as soon as possible.

Example: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

Set up voice

Have you ever absolutely loved a book but can’t exactly explain why? The plot was mediocre, the characters were relatable but there was just something extra special about the book you can’t pin down. It was probably the voice, the personality of the writing. Without exception, that personality should begin in the very first sentence and carry a similar feel throughout the entire piece.

Example: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” —Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Set up (writing) style

If a novel is a facts-based story with minimal details, the first line should reflect that. If a novel has a lot of description and wandering narration, then a long-winded description of a farm landscape and the sound of the character’s boots crunching gravel. The length of the sentence can have a big effect on this. Also, the POV should become clear in the first sentence.

Example of straight forward writing style: “Mother died today.” —Albert Camus, The Stranger

Example of stylistic writing style: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.” —James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

115564627_06f61afdb6_bReflect the novel as a whole

This encompasses the two previous suggestions but also every other aspect of the writing and story itself. If the story is set in the 1800’s you don’t want to use 21st century slang. If its realistic fiction, don’t begin with a science-fiction metaphor. If you want to create a reliable narrator, avoid an opening sentence like Slaughterhouse Five‘s, “All this happened, more or less.” Whatever a piece of writing is about should be reflected in the opening line.

Example: “It is a fact universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Make a bold statement

An option but not a requirement.

Example: “I am an invisible man.” —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man.

Set the (action) scene

Some common advice you might have heard is to begin writing a story in the middle of a compelling scene. This can be an attention-grabbing option but (considering the above) if the story is not based around tons of action, this might not be the best option.

Example: “They shoot the white girl first.” —Toni Morrison, Paradise

Introduce a character/setting

This is present in most first sentences but is rarely the main point of interest or focus.

Example: “My name is Odd Thomas, though in this age when fame is the altar at which most people worship, I am not sure why you should care who I am or that I exist.” —Dean Koontz, Odd Thomas

What great advice have you heard about writing an opening line?

What is one of your own favorite opening lines?

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About Sarah JS

Aspiring writer, lover of words, book nerd, working editor, and permanent student of the world

Posted on February 5, 2015, in A Writer's Life, Editing, Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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