3 Ways to a Killer Opening Line

By Diane O’Connell

When you first crack open a new novel, there’s so much riding on that first sentence. I know it sounds a bit extreme, but hear me out — aren’t opening lines that immediately pull you into the novel’s story world so much more invigorating and intriguing than lackluster ones?

A powerful and utterly interesting opening line can not only draw readers into your novel, but also hint at the overarching themes your work explores in a deep and lasting way.

Here are 3 ways to open your novel:

1. Surprise.

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

—Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road

Did you just ask yourself, “What? Explode?” A surprising opening that causes readers to pause, perplexed in their tracks, is a dramatic way to thrust the novel’s story into existence.

Often, the best of these jolting lines have short, choppy syntax, or contain phrases that are downright confusing to readers (like the one above). Although your readers don’t quite understand what’s going on, they are intrigued. They want to know more and the only thing they can do is keep reading to find the answer — this is what you want as an author.

2. Enchant.

“Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s.”

—Tana French, In The Woods

Gorgeous, almost poetic prose can sweep readers into your novel’s setting, as this opening line does here. Note the nostalgic tone with which French festoons her first sentence. She romances us with these images of small towns and idyllic summers, enticing us to recall our own memories of such rosy times.

A vibrant opening like this also sets the tone for the rest of the novel. In The Woods takes place in the Irish countryside, during a summer that was ultimately transformative for its characters. With these snapshots of a time now gone, French almost mimics the sensory memories one associates with childhood — we don’t remember conversations or exactly what our routine was each day, but we remember what we felt with our senses. French’s first line calls to mind the dreamlike imagery of Proust’s scene from Remembrance of Things Past, when he harnesses a memory of a simple madeleine in a entrancing, sensory way. Not only does French’s opening line give an example of poetic prose, but it also orients readers to what kind of novel this will be.

3. Connect.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

—J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

If your novel’s protagonist drives the arc of your entire story, or has a unique point-of-view, consider opening with his thoughts, narration or dialogue. Here, we hear the narrator’s deflated tone so clearly as he opens up to us. We are instantly curious as to what he’ll say next.

 Perfecting an opening line like this takes a full commitment to write in the voice of your main character. You must know his thoughts, tone, background…if you want to introduce your readers to your main character (the star of the show) ASAP.

Would you love to craft an enchanting opening line, but aren’t sure how? Try this: Find opening lines you love and mimic the approach, sentence structure and tone, using your own story. Don’t be afraid to take risks with creative writing. Experiment, and don’t despair if you end up with a dozen opening lines you can’t select one from; the opening line is often the line most changed in a novel.

Do you feel your novel needs help with its opening line — or opening pages? That’s something I can help you with. Get in touch here.

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17 Responses to “3 Ways to a Killer Opening Line”

  1. Morrison April 1, 2013 10:12 am #

    Great post! I’ve noticed that there’s so much talk about hooking readers into your novel, especially with ereaders taking precedence in the publishing world. This is a handy breakdown. Thanks as always Diane!

    • Diane April 1, 2013 1:22 pm #

      I Morrison,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Your point about e-readers is a good one, yet even with a print book it can be even more critical to draw readers in from the beginning. Think about it: If your book is on a shelf at Barnes & Noble, you want anyone who picks it up to want to buy it right away.

      Hope that helps!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  2. Patty April 1, 2013 11:32 am #

    Opening lines are hard!!!!!! I cannot tell you how many times I have rewritten the first line of my novel. (It’s a romance, so understandably there is a lot to say about grabbing people right away lol!) Breaking it down in this way is quite helpful. My heroine is quite chatty, so I’m taking to heart your point #2. I’m hoping I can make her come across as relatable yet not too annoying. It’s a balancing act lol

    • Diane April 1, 2013 1:18 pm #

      Hi Patty,

      They are hard! Although, the fact that you feel so and know so indicates that you are truly a dedicated writer who strives to get it right. You’re on the right track!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  3. Melanie Dwyer April 1, 2013 1:03 pm #

    Diane-

    This post is particularly inspiring. Proof that teaching someone to fish (so to speak) and breaking down what makes great sentences so great has already been so wonderful for me. I myself have been struggling with this in my own writings. It can be such a challenge!

    • Diane April 1, 2013 1:18 pm #

      Hi Melanie,

      Thanks so much for chiming in. I’m so happy to see you’ve taken something away from this post. Really, opening lines are key to setting the tone to your novel. One of the best ways to do this is to ensure you can dedicate a lot of time to crafting one that does your story justice. Let us know how it’s going and happy writing to you!

  4. Robyn Brookstone April 2, 2013 10:00 am #

    This blog post had me (perhaps intentionally) at the first paragraph. Opening lines can be such a fun element to finesse, but boy can they also be frustrating. Your approach, which is rooted in dissecting existing opening lines in classic books and pinpointing how they tick, is a great jumping point. I was so wrapped up in trying to figure out a way to draw inspiration from my OWN novel, and that was kind of getting me into a dead end. After writing and writing about the same characters for so long, thinking of a way to freshly put them out there at line one was driving me a bit insane. These are very helpful.

  5. Marni April 2, 2013 10:14 am #

    What’s more important: Opening lines or closing lines?

  6. Roseanne April 2, 2013 10:20 am #

    Great post! I especially love your prompt at the end. I’m trying it tonight! It’s given me a new wave of inspiration.

  7. Tom April 10, 2013 8:16 pm #

    As always, Diane, great advice :)

  8. Karin Blythe April 10, 2013 9:20 pm #

    Diane
    Your great coaching is a gift to my weary writer’s soul! You give such BIG instruction in such simple ways. Thank you. I too will be doing the exercise you provided.

    I met an award winning teen international NYT bestselling author, Ruta Sepetys. She wrote a book that is literally being translated in many languages and taught in school’s globally It’s about the horrors of what Stalin did to Lithuania. Called “between shades of gray”

    I was staggered by the opening line. “They took me in my nightgown.”.

    I was moved to tears by the first line. I’ve never had that happen before. Ruta told me she rewrote the book 17 times. Well, it’s gorgeous, gripping and powerful.

    And so…. I keep reading your posts and keep rewriting! Thanks

  9. Elisabeth Noughton June 17, 2013 5:16 pm #

    I often enjoy hyper-focused — yet big-picture-gesturing — posts like these. These principles apply to opening lines yet also touch on the deeper purpose of storytelling. Thank you for sharing this on social media and for your informative twitters.

  10. Luke Papazian June 18, 2013 8:43 am #

    Hi Diane,

    I’m actually an experienced technical writer who’s trying to “break out” into the fiction realm. It’s been tough. I’m commenting because Catcher in The Rye is one of the reasons I developed such a deep love for fiction and for pursuing it. Not only is the quote you’ve chosen a great one (all of these quotes are quite helpful), but your interpretation of it has helped me a great deal. It reinforces this point that each element in a story must relate to a larger goal. It’s actually quite technical once you think about it.

    I may need some assistance with my first novel. I’ve been writing many short stories but think I am finally ready for the ultimate challenge. I see you are an editor how can I contact you?

    Regards,
    Luke

    • Diane June 18, 2013 8:50 am #

      Hi Luke,

      Thanks for chiming in and sharing a little bit about yourself. I hear you — fiction can be a challenge, but a rewarding one if you stick with it. I’d be happy to speak with you about your project. Go ahead and fill out this form on my site, which will tell me a bit more about you before we sit down to talk: http://www.writetosellyourbook.com/first-time-fiction-author

      Cheers,
      Diane

  11. Donne Milano October 29, 2013 4:26 am #

    Great article!

  12. Swati November 12, 2013 6:01 am #

    My favorite is Albert Camus’:

    “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.”

    …from ‘The Outsider’.

    • Diane November 12, 2013 9:56 am #

      A fantastic example! Thank you so much for chiming in, Swati.

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