As a writer, and a reader, I love opening lines. I’m always curious as to how myself and other authors choose to start their books — chapter one, first paragraph, opening sentence. There can only be one opening line, and for that I’m fascinated by them.
In this chapter, I’ll go over what makes a good opening line, and show you some examples of my favourite opening lines, and why they work for me.
Why opening lines are so important
Have you ever read the opening line of a book and been completely captivated? Just from that one line, you’re hooked, you’re engaged, it draws you in and can’t wait to read on?
Or, have you ever read the opening line and immediately knew the book wasn’t for you?
In either case, opening lines are really important. They can either draw a reader in or turn them off completely.
The reason why having a captivating opening line is so important is because people are really quick to pass judgment, and I don’t blame them. Their time is valuable.
Let’s face it, there are a million things competing for people’s attention and their time is limited. They may have only a few hours per day to dive into something of interest, and if it is one of our books, then we need to hook our audience immediately and keep them engaged.
Our book has to be more captivating than TV or movies, more engaging then video games, deliver more gratification than social media and YouTube, be better than going outside and doing something, more interesting than hanging out with a friend, better than relaxing, and better than any other book they could be reading.
Attention is the asset we’re all vying for.
To do this, we need to understand broadly what captures people’s attention. While I’m not an expert, I thought about what elements go into making great opening lines.
1. Dramatic or shocking
A dramatic or shocking opener is something a reader may not typically expect. It’s a juxtaposition if you will. It’s like getting hit in the face with a cold bucket of water. It wakes you up and engages you.
Here are some examples of dramatic or shocking openers that I like.
“Not every 13-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty.”
— 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke.
“The telephone was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.”
— War in Heaven by Charles Williams.
Philosophical opening lines make you think about something in a new way and challenge your current beliefs. They can be profound and not fully understood, and for that it creates a sense of mystery and wonder.
Here are some examples of philosophical openers.
“Nothing ever begins.”
— Weaveworld by Clive Barker.
“Right here and now, as an old friend used to say, we are in the fluid present, where clear-sightedness never guarantees perfect vision.”
— The Black House, by Stephen King and Peter Straub.
As with most writing, poetic or pleasing sounding prose can often engage a reader. You want your words to flow effortlessly so that people can ease into the story. This could mean using descriptive language, a metaphor, alliteration, or playing with sounds of the words.
Here’s an example of a poetic sounding opener.
“The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp.”
— The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum.
4. Unanswered questions
This one is similar to the philosophical element — unanswered questions push people’s curiosity button and makes them investigate further to satisfy that curiosity.
Here are few examples of openers that leave more to the imagination and invite people to question why something happened.
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
— To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
“Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.”
— Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
Often the most powerful openers are the simplest. They say something provocative in as few as words as possible, and for that it creates an impact and captures my attention.
“First the colors.”
— The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
“A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories.”
— Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.
What you don’t want to do
We looked at some examples of opening lines and what makes them work. Here are some things that tend to turn me off. This, of course, is subjective so take my comments with a grain of salt.
I tend not to like exposition in opening lines. This is where the author goes into detail about who the character is and maybe even describes what they look like.
“Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.”
— The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
Again, I’ll preface this by stating that this is just my opinion, but wordy openers tend not to work for me. Here’s a very famous example from Charles Dicken’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, which is perhaps one of the most well-known opening lines in history.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
In the interest of time, and making my point, I’ll stop it there. I cut it at about the halfway mark. It goes on like this. Now, yes this is considered a classic, but I don’t think this would hold up today. Modern writing has evolved to a point where it’s much less dense and wordy. For me, this is overly wordy and gives my brain too many things to think about too soon.
The last thing that I don’t like about opening lines is when they are confusing. I get that mysterious, obscure openers could create a sense of intrigue for readers, but for me, I’m usually not invested enough to continue on if the opening line is confusing.
Here are some examples of confusing opening lines.
“How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails.”
— A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
“Ba-room, ba-room, ba-room, baripity, baripity, baripity, baripity–Good.”
— Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.
Opening lines don’t just appear on page one
Opening lines aren’t just used for the beginnings of books, they’re important for every chapter. Each chapter is an opportunity for a reader to lose interest, put your book down, and find something else to occupy their attention.
For this reason, I try to have compelling opening lines for all my chapters. I even try to make the last line of chapters captivating and engaging, making people want to turn the page and devour the next chapter.
Don’t overthink it
When it comes to writing the opening line of you book, it’s best not to overthink it and try to come up with the perfect sentence. This can be a huge roadblock for a lot of writers. I’ve said this a million times before and I will say it again, the real work of great writing is in editing. To quote the late great writer Michael Crichton, “Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten.”
A tip for writing great opening lines
One thing I like to do is start with an opening paragraph. Write the whole thing and then come back to it. You can actually do this at any point in the writing process, it doesn’t have to be in the beginning.
Sometimes what I find is the best opening line is the last sentence in my opening paragraph. I just cut and paste it. As it’s in the wrong order in which I wrote it, it often lacks context, but in more instances than not, it works. It almost has this inherently mysterious quality about it.
Anyway, that’s all I have to say about this topic. I love opening lines and pay particular attention to them whenever I read other author’s work, and especially in my own writing.
What are some of your favorite opening lines? Let me know in the comments.