How to Write Strong Opening Lines
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Whether you’re writing the first line of your book or simply starting a new chapter, opening lines are tough. In the span of just a sentence or two, you must convince readers that your story is worth their time. Scary right?
Opening lines are your bargaining chips, your siren songs, your bait. And if you don’t master them, you risk turning readers away. So how can we keep that from happening? By hooking them in of course!
By “hooking” readers, we’re talking about captivating them so wholly in the span of just a few short lines that they won’t be able to put your book down.
It’s tricky business, but here’s a bit of good news: by analyzing popular opening lines from literature, you can get a much better feel for how to go about writing your own. So let's jump in!
How to Captivate Your Readers...
In prepping to write this blog post, I began thinking about the different reasons why an opening line might captivate a reader. And though this is by no means an exhaustive list, I did boil it down to four main keys:
1. It piques their curiosity.
2. It creates an emotional connection.
3. It provides entertainment, most often via humor.
4. It has shock factor.
Most opening lines, be they for an individual chapter or the book as a whole, seek to rouse readers’ curiosity by planting questions in their minds. Take these lines for example:
“Kell wore a very peculiar coat.”
A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
1984, George Orwell
“First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.”
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
These opening lines ask questions like, “Why is the coat peculiar?” and “Striking thirteen? How is that possible?” and “Wait, is this narrator not human? What’s going on here?”.
But sometimes, opening lines do more than pique curiosity. They can also entertain via humor or add a measure of shock or speak to certain readers on an emotional level. Take these additional lines for example:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
“Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”
The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
While curiosity is key, making an additional effort to further captivate readers isn’t such a bad way to open a chapter is it? But how can you begin creating your own opening lines?
Begin by setting the mood
Mood is the vibe you’d like readers to feel when reading your book. This is also called "atmosphere."
When it comes to choosing the opening line of your book, consider the general mood you want to convey throughout your story. Is it hope, struggle, whimsy, terror, gloom, nostalgia, adventure, peace, romance, or something else entirely?
Try to pin down your story’s mood to just one descriptor, then keep this in mind as you move into the next section of today’s article.
But not every chapter in your book will stick to your story’s general mood. A horror book may have humorous scenes, a romance novel may feature a character’s serious struggle, a lighthearted adventure may have moments of gloom, and so on.
So rather than considering your story’s atmosphere as a whole when writing the first lines of individual chapters, consider instead what type of mood you’d like to set for that chapter in particular. Make sense?
One thing to note: when it comes to the opening lines of individual chapters in your book, you don’t necessarily have to pose a question every. single. time. Sometimes it’s enough to simply set the mood, then move into a new and intriguing scene that poses questions of its own.
“The city looked positively bleak, shrouded in the dying light, as if everything had been painted over with only black and white, an entire palette dampened to shades of grey.”
A Gathering of Shadows, chapter 5, V.E. Schwab
See how this chapter opener doesn’t necessarily pose a question, but merely sets a bleak mood for the scene? Though not universal, this technique tends to be used most often when characters are moving to a new setting at the beginning of a chapter.
Got it? Now let’s move on to the next element we need to consider when writing opening lines.
Adding purpose to the page
“Everything in your novel must serve a purpose.”
If you’ve been hanging around Well-Storied since long before it became Well-Storied, then you’re probably sick of that saying. But hey! It’s true. And it applies to your opening lines as well.
You’ve nailed down the mood you’d like to set, but to get to the bottom of what the question you pose in your opening line will be about, you must next think about it’s purpose. Specifically, what will you introduce?
After all, that is what opening lines are all about, right? Introducing something new to your readers? That something new may be:
• A Character
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis
• A Thought or Feeling
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.”
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
“The shutters swinging in the storm winds were the only sign of her entry.”
Crown of Midnight, Sarah J. Maas
• A Setting
“Ironically, since the attacks, the sunsets have been glorious.”
Angelfall, Susan Ee
• World-building Context
“There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.”
Divergent, Veronica Roth
You can also introduce multiple elements in your opening lines, such as these examples do:
“Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive.”
Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, JK Rowling
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
“In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.”
The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht
How do you choose which element(s) to feature in your opening line? I suggest writing the entire opening scene first. You won’t know what’s most important to feature unless you have context, and writing the scene will give you just that.
Framing Your Opening Line
At this point, you should have a general understanding of what you want to captivate readers with and what mood you need to convey in order to set the scene. Now, it’s time to start playing around with your opening line. First, consider how you may frame it.
Generally speaking, most opening lines fall into one of three frameworks:
1. They open with dialogue.
"'I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one.'"
Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
2. They open with action.
“When he grabs mama’s wrist and yanks her toward the wall-hanging like that, it must hurt.”
Bitterblue, Kristin Cashore
3. They open with a statement.
“The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle.”
Paper Towns, John Green
All three ways to frame your opening lines are perfectly good choices, so don’t stress about choosing the “right” one. You may even want to begin creating different versions of your opening line using all three frameworks to get a feel for what works best for your novel or chapter.
Writing opening lines is, in many ways, an art form. A little bit of practice can go a long way, but for the most part, it can’t exactly be taught.
What I’ve done today is simply analyze how opening chapters are often put together so you can begin brainstorming ideas for your own. So what are you waiting for? Let opening line playtime begin!