Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Opening Lines


Opening lines make me want to tear my hair out. I can't tell you how many cups of coffee and bags of M&M's it takes for me to produce a good opening line.

Writing a great opening line may be an art form. Oh, most of us can come up with a clever string of words, but often the sentence doesn't truly fit our book. We may even try to change the book to match the line, because we love it so much. For this reason, it's important to avoid growing a distorted attachment to an opening line.

After being blessed with the opportunity to read many first lines by fellow unpublished authors, I'm going to share with you a little secret I've discovered.

Often, a writer's best line will not be the opening line or even be on the first page. It's usually buried in a paragraph somewhere on the first or second page. Why do I know this? Because the line jumps out at me. I instantly think, now this is the opener.

Why can't we see this for ourselves? I think it boils down to being too close to our story. We think we've found the perfect sentence, but we're wrong, oh, how wrong! An outside pair of eyes can be crucial to making sure the best line for our book shows up front and center.

The process of analyzing other writer's opening lines has made me adept at finding my own buried best line.

And while we're on the subject of first lines, I have to share my misguided idea of writing the opening line to my fifth book. My first four books were written in quick succession without the help of a single craft book. (Nothing to be proud of, my friends.) These beauties reside in my closet where they belong. But after I received my first, and might I add deserved, rejection, I realized for book five I needed to learn this pesky thing called the writing craft.

Did I get overzealous and try to cram too much in?

Yep. So book five needed a spectacular opener, one that would employ all of the splendid craft techniques I'd picked up over the year. When I finished,the line could definitely be described as memorable, after all, I'd thrown enough words in to create an entire paragraph. Lesson learned? Longer doesn't equal better.

Turns out, the shorter sentences I'd used pre-learning-the-craft proved a good judgment call!

What makes an opening line jump out at you? Do you have any opening line pet peeves?

Join me on Friday to set one goal!


  1. This is a really interesting post. I don't like opening lines that try to shock to get the readers attention. For example, this one,(see beloe), made me cringe and I never read the book. I put it down immediately. It was written by one of my university lecturers, Rod Jones, back in 1997. This is the line: "When we look at other people, we either want to fuck them or kill them." Disgusting hey? And this guy sold a lot of books, he's published by Vintage and won heaps of awards. Goes to show, though, that one person's trash is another person's treasure.

    Would you care to share the first line you chose? I'd love to see. :)

  2. Maybe the great ones aren't great because they're so obvious, but because they keep us reading?

  3. I adore opening lines. Reading them and writing them. Hmmm, pet peeves, maybe those that leave me guessing where the heck I am and who the heck I'm with...but then again sometimes those are just perfect.

    ~ Wendy

  4. Good morning!

    The Alliterative A: Yeah, I wouldn't read further with that as the opener, but it's a personal thing!

    Em-Musing: Clever is good, interesting is better, right?

    Wendy: Same here. I need some sense of why I'm reading!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  5. I usually just put a filler in when I write the book, and hopefully, my actual opening line while come to me during the process.

  6. You know why I love your blog? Your posts raise my freedom factor by wiping out these silly unwritten rules I've got in my head... like pulling the opening line from somewhere else in the story. Why did I think I couldn't do that?
    Blessings, Jill! I'm going to be looking for that sentence that pops out at me!

  7. Perfect opening lines are a rare treasure. There has to be the right tone and snappiness, often a little bit shocking. When it's a truth that resonates, even better.

  8. Jill, I hear you on being able to see things so much more clearly in others' stories than in our own. I find opening lines to be challenging. Rather than spending countless hours stewing over one, I slap something down and keep going. Then, when I really know the characters and the story, I revisit the opening, and often I'll know how to begin.

    I'll second the request to see your first line, if you're comfortable sharing. Or perhaps a before and after?

  9. I read once that a writer should through out the first chapter completely and begin the book with chapter two!

    First lines are the most difficult for me, I think I want it to be too perfect.

  10. ugh yeah I have trouble with opening lines a lot. Sometimes I just make myself throw something down and won't let myself stress over it till later. But I always try to edit as I go. Bad habit. *sigh*

  11. Jill, you really have me thinking. I like the idea that you may find your opening line written further in your story.

    When reciting a monologue in an acting class once, the teacher encouraged me to add my my own dialogue to help get into character before the scene began. I never thought of using that technique for writing.


  12. Opening lines that do not fit the voice or the style of the story, but are only used to grab your attention. Those drive me nuts.

  13. Opening lines that are miles of setting description get one response: yawn.

    Susan :)

  14. Opening lines are tough for me too. I'm still trying to come up with one for my current project. Maybe I'll look further in the chapter. It could be hiding there somewhere. :)

  15. Julie: I do that now too. It's too easy to let the first line paralyze me!

    Niki: Maybe we hit our stride in the story a few paragraphs in? I don't know, I just know I've found some truly fantastic lines in the middle of page two.

    Georgiana: Good points. True and shocking--what could be better?

    Keli: We're too much alike, you know! Okay, I'll track down the horrific opening to book five (sorry to any agent or editor who had to plow through this bad boy!).

    Tamika: I think that's true for people who tend to overwrite or who haven't quite gotten the info-dumping out of their system!

    L.E.: Your method is my method. It keeps me sane!

    Lynn: Ooh, good idea! I'm filing that one away.

    Melissa: I've come across a few of those and I agree with you. Boo!

    Susan: I don't want to read about windswept clouds and yards of prairie either!

    Susan M: Oh, look! You'll find it!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  16. Wow, these opening lines embarrass me. I must have deleted all evidence of my massive run-on opener from the very first draft. Here's the official first draft opener and the final draft opener.

    Initial Draft:

    Another dead mouse! How had she missed that one? Shelby stood up at the foot of the stairs and rubbed her bottom, sore after tripping over the beast, flying into the air, and sliding down the remaining steps with a thump, thump, thump.

    Let's analyze the many problems. Exclamation point? Really? Right away? Probably not a good idea. The word "up" is not necessary, the term "bottom" laughable, and I'm not even sure where I came up with "flying through the air," or "sliding down the steps," and really, thump, thump, thump??

    Final Draft:
    Shelby Beaumont pushed open the door to her childhood home and walked into a horror film.

    All I can say is yawn.

    I KNOW you guys can come up with better openers than these!

  17. Wow, Jill! That final draft opening line is great!

    Thanks for sharing the before and after, as well as the thought process you went through to get from one to the other.

  18. I like a story to start right where it's supposed to start, with just the right words to set the stage for an amazing story.

    Things I don't like?

    The use of something the author thinks is "clever" or "cute" that's supposed to make me want to read on. That just annoys me, especially if it has nothing to do with the story.

    Or dialogue. I have to say I'm not a fan of opening with the spoken word.

  19. Opening lines are so difficult for me. I don't think I've ever been happy with one I've written (I write articles - don't have that many books under my belt...I don't even have one book under my belt :) ).

    Every time I think I have a good one, I end up changing it a few days later. And then, when the article is printed, I cringe at what I thought was a good opening. Guess, I should just be happy that the editor liked it enough to keep it, right?

  20. Keli: You're so sweet! I've written three books since that little gem. My opening lines have come a long way, but they never come on the first try. Just not natural to me, I guess!

    Elana: I don't like clever or cute either. Ideally, an opening line reflects the story!

    Diane J: I know exactly how you feel. Why must I obsess over them? (I'm sure your editor is very lucky to have you!)

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  21. Jill:
    I have heard that opening lines are to hook the reader into reading more. But I see a lot of books that have less than great beginnings that I have to force myself to continue reading.

  22. Conflict right away. In my face.
    Great post!

  23. I've found that sometimes I need to write the beginning in order to determine where it actually begins...if that makes sense!

  24. I love a first line with a little humor or a hint of danger.

    Dick Francis was a master at opening lines. I love to go through his books and read the first lines when I'm trying to come up with one of my own.

  25. Jill, I completely disagree with your "yawn" assessment of your final draft opener. I would DEFINITELY keep reading after that first sentence. And that's what openers are supposed to do...keep you reading! I, like another commenter, hate openers that seem to have been written for shock value alone--or because the writer has been terrorized/ brainwashed into believing that the opener is the most important sentence in the whole book. No wonder writers develop writer's block....

    I love your idea/suggestion that the best opener may be hidden later in the opening paragraphs. I'll have to test that one.


  26. Opening lines are important, yes, but I don't worry about them until final drafting stage, or I'll get too hung up on it and never finish. :)

  27. I'll be honest, I love great opening paragraphs, lines, whatever. They've sold me before on the novel. So I suppose that shows how important I think they are.

  28. Oogh. Opening lines. How I detest trying to come up with a good one. Some great ideas here, though. I will keep them in mind.

  29. I loooooooove this post, especially since I love writing. Of course, I've never really editied a piece of my own work (too lazy) but you're right that the opening line usually isn't the best sentence of the book. I used to try writing titles and opening lines and coming up with story ideas from there, but it never worked, of course.
    The only thing I really hate about opening lines is when they are cliche or utterly boring. Opening lines are basically this: I'M A BOOK NOW READ ME!!!! And if that's not what they say then I'm wasting my time.

  30. You're right. Opening lines don't have to be the first sentence.

    One of my favorites is by Kristan Higgins. And actually I think it's the second line that really makes it:

    "I'm a stalker. The good kind."


  31. Often times I like to go back to the beginning after I've gotten into the story and write the opening line. For me it's similar to not giving my story a title until I have really gotten a chance to discover where it's going to lead. Opening lines often feel different for each genre. I love lines that let me discover what the hidden meaning behind it may be as well as the "in your face, tell it like it is" openers.

  32. Quiet Spirit: Reading should be fun, not forced, right? Opening lines are important!

    Patti: In your face! :)

    Kristen T: Yes, it does make sense. The story needs to mesh a bit.

    Erica: Humor or danger--great elements in an opener. I haven't read Dick Francis. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Patrice: Thank you. I agree the shock value lines annoy me--unless they genuinely add to the story.

    Lady Glamis: Too hung up? What are you, a writer? ;)

    T.Anne: I know! But to be honest, I've read books with mediocre first lines that I ended up falling in love with.

    Rebecca T: It's not my forte. I'd much rather write the end!

    Maria: You're silly! Of course you aren't lazy. You have a great blog--that's the proof!

    Jennifer S: Great line! I can relate! Now I want to read the rest...

    CMOM: You're right. Different genres need different tones. Good point.

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  33. I have a problem with opening lines too. My first paragraph needs to be changed entirely, now that I think about it.


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