Opening Lines

Posted: May 7, 2016 by Jaden C. Kilmer in Article
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Today on Living Authors Society, a lecture on macro-economics, specifically supply-side economics  versus Keynesian ideology.

WAIT! WAIT! Don’t close the tab.

I’m kidding. As usual, this post contains thoughts on writing. Specifically, opening lines and their importance. What makes an opening line good? And just how important is a good first line, exactly?

Last week I wrote about the importance of a good cover. So let’s continue walking through someone’s experience in picking out your book. You’ve got a bitchin’ cover that caught someone’s attention, and now they’ve picked it up and turned to the first page, gauging their interest. And they see this:

  • When the corpse showed up in the swimming pool, her dead bosoms bobbing up and down like twin poached eggs in hollandaise sauce, Randy decided to call the police as soon as he finished taking pictures of his breakfast and posting them to his Facebook wall.

Yeah, that’s pretty bad. Safe to say they shut the book somewhere around “hollandaise sauce.” This line in fact, was one of the winners of the 2015 Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest, where writers submit the worst plausible opening lines to novels they can think of. A book that opens with a line that bizarre probably won’t find an audience. How about this one?

It was a cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

It’s not a sentence that will immediately turn you off from the book. (Really only a sentence as spectacularly bad as the one above are bad enough to ruin a reader’s interest single-handedly.) But will it work? Will this book find an audience?

Some of you are on to me. For those of you that don’t know though, that line is the opening line of 1984.

You don’t need a spectacular, grandiose opener to your story. In fact, that’s probably where most people go wrong. They try to over stuff their first line with flowery description, or try to hard to write something really interesting or captivating. People tell you and tell you and tell you how important a first page is, and their right. It’s the most important page of a book. But the first line?

I think that an opening line must do a few things. 1.) Be concise. 2.) Introduce the story and 3.) Be interesting.

Here’s an excerpt from part of a Bulwer-Lytton runner up:

In the forest of Thrangul, Dobo Snabeley stared at his quest companions, Bolto Dwaven, Eagle Thepnis, Night Hunter, and Lythan Elva, looking to a map of Husker-Du…

This line does do number 2, it introduces the story (albeit a story that’s clearly a cliche-fest) but it fails 1 and 3. For one, it’s not concise. A painfully common thing I see in fantasy stories from people first flexing their writer muscles is to overload it with names- usually nonsense names as well- without giving any characterization to them. It’s hard to balance a large cast of characters, so hard that Stephanie Meyer effectively said “f*ck it” and added an appendix to Breaking Dawn listing everyone. Please, for the love of Tolkien, do not name drop anyone in the first line of your fantasy novel.

My 1984 example only does one better. It does the job, but it only checks off two of three on the list. It’s concise, and it begins the story. But it’s not particularly interesting. How about a first line that does all 3? Concisely begins the plot in an interesting way?

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.

This opens Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. It’s an 800 page epic and does its fair share of meandering but the opening line wastes no time. The goddamn moon’s blown up. If you’re a sci-fi fan and that doesn’t hook you, then I don’t know what will. Notice that the line isn’t doing anything fancy. It’s not sprinkling metaphors or fancy words in to feel “big” or anything. It’s not name-dropping a million people either. (sidenote: Stephenson does employ a huge cast of characters in the book and does a great job of keeping them all unique and memorable) It tells you plain and clear why you should read this book. It’s about the moon blowing up.

Take a look at your opening line. It’s important to remember the opening line itself really doesn’t need to be spectacular, as the 1984 line shows. But the opening paragraph does need to hook a reader in some way. And it’s true that the sooner you can get that hook in, the better. But if your story requires a slow burn and you don’t want to come out swinging, don’t be afraid to channel Orwell’s “cold day in April.”

This brings me to my last point. Know your audience.

If you’re writing for teenagers, you may want to start off with something that has a punch. Begin in media res maybe, like Tess Sharpe in Far from You.

It doesn’t start here. You’d think it would; two terrified girls in the middle of nowhere, cowering together, eyes bulging at the gun in his hand. But it doesn’t start here. It starts the first time I almost die.

Same goes for writing adult-oriented thrillers. Fast paced, un-put-down-able books like Gone Girl probably should start with a bang. Like this:

When I think of my wife, I always think of the back of her head. I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brain, trying to get answers.

If you’re aiming for something more literary, don’t sweat the opening lines as much as the opening paragraph. Less can be more. Again, it is NOT necessary to wow and awe from the first or second sentence. Some books do, but several simply take their time and quietly reveal what they have to say. If your audience is the type to recreationally read 1984, Moby Dick, or The Sun Also Rises, don’t obsess over a perfect first sentence. Obsess over the perfect paragaph 🙂


  1. Amanda E says:

    Great piece. I’m going to stress and ponder my opening line and paragraph now until I can’t sleep lol. But you are right in anything, be it essay, poem, or book, the first line needs to hook the reader. There is some saying about “Going int the story at he latest possible time . ..” But I don’t know if that always works. Sometimes you just need a solid introduction to what the stories about. Maybe going in en Medias Res can give you both?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you do need an introduction to things sometimes. “Going into the story at the latest possible time” doesn’t work for a lot of things. As long as the first line grabs the reader’s attention, it doesn’t need to be too far into the story.
      And yeah, I also rewrite and think about my opening lines and paragraphs a lot, trying to get it “right.”


  2. It’s worth pointing out in regards to the fantasy thing that the first line of The Hobbit is “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” which meets all three rules. So even Tolkien agrees with you.

    Liked by 1 person

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