Yank Your Reader Into Your Story With a Great Opening Line

by | May 4, 2016

My mission as a book coach is to help writers write the best books they can, which means paying attention to:

  • the macro elements (the story or argument the book makes)
  • the micro elements (the words on the page)
  • the emotional realities of the writing life (the habits that lead to success)

I’ve developed a series of posts to help you learn how to write one really great chapter so that you can take those lessons and apply them to all your work. Up first? How to write a great opening line.

Hook Your Reader With a Great Opening Line

Readers in the Information Age are expert consumers, and they tend to make lightning-fast decisions about whether to buy a book or to keep reading it. Many times, they make a judgment based on just a few opening lines. Why read further, after all, when there’s another book – or a post or a podcast or a funny meme about cats — just a click away?

It pays to write a great opening line that hooks your reader and yanks them into your story. A great first line can give your readers the DNA of the whole book, which serves as a promise and an invitation we can’t refuse.

As Stephen King says:

“An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

A quick clarification: what do I mean by the first line? I am not being strict here; it doesn’t have to be just one sentence or just one actual line of text. Think of it as the first breath of the novel, the first gulp.

Key Elements of a Great Opening Line

Here are 5 key elements a great opening line contains:

  1. Authority — a sense that the writer is in charge.

    The Latin meaning of author is “enlarger, founder, master, leader.” You need to be the master of your story, the leader of your readers, because readers don’t come to books to wander around in the dark. We want to be led. We want to go somewhere and to trust that the author knows exactly where we are going. Feeling this authority is both thrilling and comforting – like embarking on a trip to a foreign country under the care of a knowledgeable guide. If you take too long to get going, or if your start out defensively, or passively, you’ve already begun to lose your reader before you even get off the first page.

  2. A Point — a sense that the writer has something specific to say.

    We come to books for something very specific — to be entertained or educated, comforted or inspired. The best books make a very clear point about human nature or the universe, and this is as true of non-fiction books on serious topics as it is of young adult books about dragons or historical fiction about kings and queens. That point could be, “Cheaters never prosper,” “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” or “Beware your friends more than your enemies.” Your point often seems like a cliché when you are writing, but is made specific by what you put on the page.

    A great first line captures the story’s point in some way, even if it’s just a whisper or a hint. This means, if course, that you have to know what you are writing about before you start to write.

    According to John Irving:

    “If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind – making it up as you go along, like a common liar.”

  3. Momentum — a sense that something important is happening right now.

    You want to open your story at the moment your protagonist can no longer ignore the ticking clock (in fiction/memoir) or at the moment your readers know they must make a change (in nonfiction). We want a feeling that we have been dropped into the middle of something big, something pressing, something that will have important consequences either to the protagonist or to us as readers. Make sure the wolf is at the door right from second one – and not some random wolf, but the wolf your protagonist most fears. That’s what will capture your reader’s curiosity and get them turning the page.

  4. Voice – the sound of the words on the page

    Voice is one of those things that is difficult to describe, but easy to recognize. We all know when we are reading something that has a unique and compelling voice; it sounds as if we are getting a sneak peak into someone else’s mind, and their heart, and their soul. It sounds raw and real, not contrived. It has an organic rhythm and flow that is pleasing to the ear – and it makes sense and engenders trust.

  5. Mechanical Accuracy — the English language has rules. Our job is to know them and follow them.

    Nothing kills an opening line – or any written line – faster than a mechanical error. Errors leap off the page and scream out at the reader – and suddenly they are not paying attention to your story anymore; they have morphed into an English teacher with a red pen.

    Need a refresher course on the Oxford comma? Need to try – once again—to understand the difference between affect and effect (that would be me)? Study The Chicago Manual of Style, The Elements of Style or the entries of Grammar Girl.

Case Studies – Four Great Opening Lines

  1. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

    “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

    • Massive authority – you can just feel it. You are ready to follow this author into this journey.
    • A hint of the point – something about life and death and faith and friendship.
    • Momentum – heck yes. We want to know about the boy, the wrecked voice, why he was so smart, how he killed the mother and what any of that has to do with God.
    • Voice – the word “doomed,” the rhythmic phrasing (“boy with a wrecked voice,” “instrument of my mother’s death” the whole flow of it.
    • Proper use of the Oxford comma (commas before every item on a list), semi-colon, caps on God and Christian.
  2. The Martian by Andy Weir

    “I’m pretty much f***ed.
    That’s my considered opinion.
    F***ed.
    Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.”

    (*asterisks here added by me.)

    • Massive authority – you can just feel it. You are ready to follow this author into this journey.
    • A hint of the point – this is going to be a story about survival.
    • Momentum – heck yes. We want to know how, exactly, the guy is f***ed, what happened six days ago, why it was going to be so great, and how the nightmare is going to end.
    • Voice – opening with one, single forbidden word, repeating it, the whole rhythm of it, combined with the oddly erudite phrase “my considered opinion.”
    • Mechanically accurate.
  3. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

    “Every morning, no matter how late he had been up, my father rose at 5:30, went to his study, wrote for a couple of hours, made us all breakfast, read the paper with my mother, and then went back to work for the rest of the morning. Many years passed before I realized that he did this by choice, for a living, and that he was not unemployed or mentally ill.”

    • Massive authority – you can just feel it. You are ready to follow this author into this journey.
    • A hint of the point – this is going to be a story about the peculiarities of the writing life.
    • Momentum – heck yes. We want to know what this girl grew up to become, what she thought when she got into that room herself (because you know she’s going to), and how she found a way to keep a.) employed and b.) not mentally ill.
    • Voice – fabulous narrative drive – the sentences drive through from beginning to end like a freight train. And funny! Come on, didn’t you chuckle at that last line, even if you’ve read the book?
    • Mechanically accurate. Proper use of the Oxford comma, no “head hopping” (where the narrator gets into another person’s head where they can’t possibly know what’s happening.)
  4. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

    “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind
    and another
    his mother called him “WILD THING!”
    and Max said, “I’LL EAT YOU UP!”
    so he was sent to bed without eating anything.”

    • Massive authority – you can just feel it. You are ready to follow this author into this journey.
    • A hint of the point – this is going to be a story about the difficulty of balancing obedience and wildness, which we all feel from time to time.
    • Momentum – heck yes. We want to know what happens to poor Max, who is still in his wolf suit and who is going to be very hungry, and how he is going to solve the problem of having treated his mother badly.
    • Voice – There is beautiful internal alliteration – “made mischief” and vivid imagery even without the pictures – the wolf suit, the boy calling his mother a wild thing. This expert also has fabulous narrative drive.
    • Mechanically accurate. Exclamations inside the quotation marks, mother NOT capped since it is not being used as a name.

Go check out your own opening lines and use these elements to test it. Then go and make it great.
 
Photo: pixabay.com

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22 Comments

  1. Colleen Davis

    For me, the most enjoyable aspect of this post is that the way it illustrates that Jenny practices what she preaches. She offers advice in an authoritative manner that makes you trust her observations, and pulls in quotes from the Greats to reinforce her points. The piece has a lot of momentum and the writing voice is clear.

    There is nothing worse than reading advice about writing from people who are phoning it in. She doesn’t do that.

    Reply
    • Jennie Nash

      Thanks for the lovely comment, Colleen!

      Reply
  2. Victoria Marie Lees

    Writers need to make their readers believe in them and their stories. Thank you so much for these excellent tips on how to make it happen. I’ve shared this post on social media.

    Reply
    • Jennie Nash

      Thanks for your kind words, Victoria. I appreciate it!

      Reply
  3. Kate Kimball

    I read a lot of writing advice, so much so that it swarms in my head like a poked beehive. What advice to take when? Is this more important than that?

    What helps me focus and learn is what you’ve done here. You broke down the key elements and provided specific examples illustrating your points. Not only was it good advice, but you presented it in a way I will remember it. Thank you!

    Reply
  4. Dave Jenkins

    Helpful stuff.

    I’m currently in the process of creating my own blog; establishing my own unique writing voice has been, by far, the most difficult part of the process. Your words have been extremely useful in helping speed up the process.

    Reply
  5. BobbieJoe Derhak

    Thanks for the great tips. :)

    Reply
  6. Michael W. Perry

    “Cats, dogs, and mice….”

    Should I start a story that way, or is “Cats. dogs and mice” perfectly acceptable?

    It is. The Oxford comma is a matter of choice and only required when confusion would result if weren’t used. You lost me when you equate it with good writing. There are rules that matter. The Oxford comma doesn’t. In short lists with short words, it actually looks a bit tacky.

    When it comes to commas in lists, the best rule is what economists call laissez-fair, defined as: “a policy or attitude of letting things take their own course, without interfering.”

    Or in more legal terms, stare decisis: “the legal principle of determining points in litigation according to precedent.”

    Both have the same meaning in this case, which is “leave those commas alone.” If you wrote a sentence in your draft with an Oxford comma, leave it. If you didn’t, also leave it. If one sentence in a paragraph includes it and the other doesn’t, leave the both unchanged. Heck, if the mood strikes you, change both to the opposite.

    For a parallel, which of these is the “proper” English?

    “Thursday was the day he went to town.” Or “Thursday was the day that he went to town.”

    The answer is that they’re right both individually or used in similar sentences. That last comma is a series is optional in precisely the same way. Including it or not including it is always fine. It really, really, really doesn’t matter. Really!

    That is, except when it is necessary to avoid confusion. That’s generally when the last item in the series has its own “and” as in:

    “For lunch I had a cookie, a glass of milk, and a tomato and bacon sandwitch.”

    There you need Oxford’s help.

    Notice how much easier and simpler that ‘doesn’t matter’ rule is. Whichever you do is right. You can spend the time you save improving that book in more productive ways. Life is too short and too much fun to spend it fretting over uber-consistency with commas.

    –Michael W. Perry, author and editor of numerous books that treat commas all sorts of ways. So far, none have complained.

    Reply
    • C. S. Lakin

      Well, as a copyeditor and author of sixteen novels, [comma] I have to seriously disagree. The Oxford or serial comma is crucial to clarity much of the time, and even when it’s not, it’s the rule, and consistency should be considered. I mention that I write fiction to make clear that I understand there are times when it’s useful in fiction to bend rules. And I’m all for bending comma rules when the situation warrants. Such as when someone is using slang or vernacular or ethnic style in dialogue or even deep POV narrative, and they tend to think or speak in run-on sentences and the like.

      But when those types of factors aren’t in play and writers are trying to write coherent sentences, the rules should apply.

      Even many of the most amateur writers I work with understand that there’s a huge difference between “Let’s eat Dad” and “Let’s eat, Dad.” If you feel that the first example should stay in a manuscript if it just “happens to be there” and shouldn’t be corrected for clarity (unless of course you do really intend to portray cannibalistic tendencies), then you’re encouraging bad habits and bad writing.

      If rules were all arbitrary, few readers would have a clue about what they’re reading. Rules are there for a reason, just as laws of gravity. Defy them to your peril. Oh, and legal terms and precedents don’t apply here.

      Yes, using serial commas correctly and consistently really, really, really does matter.

      You, and other readers here, might like to check out my book: Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, [serial comma] and Word Usage:

      http://www.amazon.com/Say-What-Fiction-Writers-Punctuation/dp/0986134708

      Reply
      • Jennie Nash

        Couldn’t have said it better than C.S. did here — beautifully put. And she has a book! I will be ordering that today!

        But Michael Perry, I DO agree that fussing about grammar when you are just trying to get your idea on the page or your project off the ground is an unnecessary distraction from the important work of finding an effective structure and a clear point. When you are the beginning of a project, it would be silly to worry about correct grammar — like frosting a cake before it is baked.

        Proper grammar matters when you are ready for your book to be read by other people — and since we are talking here about taking your work from good to great, I thought it important to include.

        Reply
  7. Vaidya Shankar

    Thank you for the great advice.
    Am reminded of the great opening lines of Charles Dickens in ‘A tale of two cities’
    ” It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…..”

    Reply
  8. C. S. Lakin

    Great post, Jennie. And welcome to The Book Designer! I’m surprised to see, in the many manuscripts I edit and critique, such little attention paid to crafting a strong opening. If readers don’t get engaged right away, they just aren’t going to stick around.

    Often they’ll quit reading after the first paragraph (I do, and I’ve heard acquisitions editors say the same). So while a great first paragraph can be reworked later on (which is often best) during a revision of a draft, it does require that careful attention as an invitation and promise to deliver a great story or nonfiction content.

    Reply
    • Jennie Nash

      C.S., thank you for your comment — and you would KNOW! Readers, C.S. is a top notch editor and book coach. Go find her online — she actually has a post today (by sheer coincidence) about a very similar topic. C.S…. we should be friends ;)

      Reply
      • C. S. Lakin

        Thanks! Every Wednesday I tear apart best seller first pages. Appreciate the shout out.

        Reply
        • Jennie Nash

          Awesome — I will check those out. Such a helpful tool for writers!

          Reply
          • Morgyn Star (@MorgynStar)

            C. S. (waves, excitedly!!!) and Jennie (big smile!)

            I posted this to our private online crit group (which C.S. hung-out with! Thank you again & love the new series on deconstructing first pages) using the following header:

            Yeah, we talk about this all the time and yet, this piece does a lovely bit of reminding what and why, we talk about this all the time. (I read something like this and a small part of me goes, sigh. YA kinda, sorta, almost utterly turns its back on this kind of voice.)

            IMO, a lot of this arises from something taking a “stance” on won’t help – reader impatience and a high degree tongue-in-cheek over the masses of “big crayola” writing out there.

            Would love to hear your opinions (both of you!) on this.

            Don’t know whether to slink away as a militantly not serial comma user or rethink same. Hum.

      • Jennie Nash

        @MorgynStar — Oh dear, I’m afraid I don’t follow what you’re asking. The references are fuzzy in the “reply” chain. Can you re-post and try again? I’d love to answer if I can!

        Reply
  9. Michael N. Marcus

    The need for books to have great openings has a parallel with movies, and that causes some big problems in my marriage.

    I can usually tell within two minutes or less if a movie is a stinker. If it stinks I want to leave the theater immediately. My policy is that I’ve already wasted twelve bucks and should not have to waste my time, too.

    My wife, OTOH, is a cinematic optimist, insisting that “maybe it’ll get better.” She wants to get something for her money.

    Movies and books that stink at the start almost never get better.

    Reply
    • Jennie Nash

      LOL — I can just imagine a film critical whose only criteria is how long he sits in the seat. Could be of huge use to many people!

      Reply
    • julie brown

      Michael – usually, if a patron leaves a movie within the first half hour or so, he is entitled to a refund or a coupon for another movie ticket at a later date. Can’t hurt to ask!

      Reply

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