Friday, June 1, 2018

8 Tips for Writing a Solid Opening Line

People are very judgmental.

And, as terrifying as it is, when people start reading your book, the first thing they will judge is that opening line. If they like it, they'll keep reading. If not? Well, your book will be rejected and will probably end up in some terrible the unemployment line in Greenland. Or in a Vogon poetry-reading circle. Or Umbridge's office. Or...well, you get the point.

So how can you craft an opening line that will get people to keep reading your novel? Let me sum up:
8 Tips for Writing a Solid Opening Line

1. Don't feel the need to write it first. Yeah, I know, I know. It's called an "opening line" because it's the first line. And "first" means the thing you do before anything else. Yeah. That's what you think. There is literally no reason to write your opening line first. Can't think of a good one? Just write something - anything - down and come back to it later. I've heard of writers who say they can't start writing their story because they can't figure out how to write their first paragraph. Don't do this. Just write the story. You can go back and edit the opening line whenever you feel like it. That's totally fine (and normal).

2. Don't just focus on the opening line. More like the opening paragraph. The reason the opening line is so important is that it sets the tone for the rest of the story. While the very first sentence can absolutely do that, it needs help from the rest of the paragraph. So yes, focus on the opening line, but make sure it has support from the opening paragraph.

3. Decide what you want the opening line to showcase. The opening line makes a statement about the story. It can set the mood, introduce a character, establish the writing style, or a mix of these things. So ask yourself: What is the main focus of this story? What makes it special and different? What makes it worth reading? If it's your writing style, you want to make sure your writing style is well-reflected in your opening line. If your protagonist is the main attraction, that first sentence should showcase him/her. If the mood of the story is interesting or if the plot hinges on a philosophical question, put that front and center. You want your reader to know exactly what they're getting into.

4. Remember that there are no rules. Don't feel that you need to follow any type of opening line formula. There is no such thing. You can open with dialogue. You can open with description, or action, or exposition. You can even start with a fragmented sentence or an unfinished thought. And yes, your opening line can be a single word. You can even open with a profanity (as proven by The Martian by Andy Weir). You are an author. There are no strings on you. Write how you want to write.

5. Write a ton of opening lines. Experiment! Write down dozens of opening lines if you have to. Piece them each into your opening page. Some opening lines sound good by themselves, but don't fit into the story. Some aren't particularly stunning by themselves, but make a stellar opening paragraph. Play around and see which one suits your fancy.

6. Study other opening lines. There are so, so many good ones. Read them and notice what it is that makes them good. A few that I've always enjoyed:

"It was a pleasure to burn." Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. This is a "statement opening line." It makes a statement that immediately makes you wonder. Burn what? Why is it a pleasure? What is going on? It draws you in, sets the mood for the story, and establishes an important plot point (book burning).

"It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts." The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. The first sentence isn't much on its own, but that second one? Brilliant. It establishes Rothfuss's writing style and feeds into something that is a recurring theme in the novel: Silence. It also introduces the setting (nighttime at the Waystone Inn) in an intriguing way.

"I am a sick man...I am a spiteful man." Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky jumps right in and tells us exactly who the main character is: Spiteful, sick, but brutally honest. Why is he sick? Why is he spiteful? We don't know, but we want to find out now, don't we?

"People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day." True Grit by Charles Portis. A long opening line, but a good one. We immediately get a sense of the plot (avenging a father's death), the main character's voice (no-nonsense, well-educated), and even a bit of the time period (definitely not modern).

You'll notice that good opening lines always establish at least one thing about the story. The mood. The writing style. The plot. The characters. The theme. But each opening line does it differently: Some are sarcastic, some ask questions, some make statements, some purposefully confuse, many are mysterious. The more opening lines you read, the more ideas you will get for your own. So go to a bookstore and just start pulling random books off the shelves to see what interesting new techniques lay within their pages. 

7. Remember: Friends don't lie. Your readers are your friends, so be honest with them. You opening line should not misrepresent your plot or writing style in an attempt to draw people in. That hurts everyone involved. For example: Let's say somebody presents you with a really excellent looking brownie. But it's not until after you take a bite that they explain that it's gluten-free and dairy-free, and made of avocados. It may be an excellent gluten-and-dairy-free brownie, but it wasn't what you were expecting, so it probably won't taste good to you. It's the same with books. If your opening line or paragraph makes a misleading statement, your readers will feel betrayed. Unless your story has an unreliable narrator, try to avoid this.

8. Don't panic. Some of my favorite books start out with entirely unremarkable opening lines. They're not bad opening lines per say, but they're nothing that you would end up quoting. That's fine. As long as you opening pages are interesting, you'll do just find. You don't want to focus so much on the first sentence(s) that you forget to make the other parts of your book good, too.

What are some of your favorite opening lines? Do you have any questions, tips, or tricks you'd like to share? I'd love to hear what you have to say!

Have writing, reading, or writer's life questions? Use the hashtag #ChatWithHannah below or on social media to have them answered on my Youtube channel!

Related articles:
Why You Should Let Your First Draft Suck (And How to Do It)
9 Ways to Use Reading to Improve Your Writing
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  1. Great tips! I'm bookmarking this for later.

    1. Yay! Happy it helps. Thanks for the comment, Renea!

  2. These tips were awesome! I especially liked Tip #3. I'd never thought about using your opening line to showcase the rest of the book.
    Here are two opening lines I really like:
    "Marley was dead: to begin with." –Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
    "That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me." –Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted.
    Thanks, Hannah!


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