Sunday, December 16, 2012

I Cut My Thumb Off Today

Not really, but I wanted to get your attention. Keep reading. It will all make sense by the time you finish this paragraph. This article is about opening lines, and how very important they are. When we’re looking for something to read, we want the words to fly off the page and grab our attention from that very first sentence. If they don’t do that, we may put the book down and continue our search for something else.

As writers, we sometimes don’t give our stories the best beginnings. Capturing a reader’s attention and creating an interest for the story we’re telling has to start early if we plan on keeping the reader with us until the end. The first page is important. The first paragraph is very important. The first sentence is critical. Either your opening line will impact the reader and hold their interest for several pages while they’re getting into the story, or it will leave them unimpressed enough to finish the first page.

A few examples can provide us with a better understanding, so I've listed below the opening lines from some familiar novels. I consider these to be extraordinary beginnings and more than sufficient to engage the reader.

Let’s begin with James Barrie’s opening line from Peter Pan: All children, except one, grow upThere’s no question that you have to keep reading to find out about this one, special child.

In 1984, George Orwell captures our attention by painting a strange picture with his opening line: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteenThat line is going to put a question mark in the reader’s mind and force them to read on and find out what kind of strange world they’ve stepped into.

In The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman gives us a wonderful opening line and a beautifully written sentence that is simple, shocking and enticing: There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knifeNo reader is going to be able to close the cover on that sentence. They simply must continue reading.

Finally, Anthony Horowitz gives us a fabulous opening line in StormbreakerWhen the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good newsYou can’t argue with that logic, and you can’t put the book down until you find out who’s ringing the doorbell and why they’re doing it at this hour.

And there you have a brief look at a few examples of really well written opening lines. Now that we’ve covered that, it’s time for you to take a look at your current WIP and read that first line once again. After you read it, ask yourself these questions:

1. Does it entice you to read on?
2. Does it place you in a curious situation that makes you want to know more?
3. If you close the book now, will you want to open it again to find out what happens next?

If your answer to those questions was no, then you need to take another look at that opening paragraph and, especially, your opening line. That’s your one and only chance to make a great first impression. You need to create a compelling sentence that will draw the reader in and make them want to know more about your story. It needs to be so powerful that there is no way the reader can put the book down without reading at least the following sentence, or the rest of the first paragraph. A good opening sentence that places a question in the reader’s head can hold them through the first hundred pages or more while you continue to work your magic and spin the tale around that perfect opening line.

So, there’s your assignment. Create the very best opening line for your story. When you come up with that absolutely perfect first sentence, share it with the rest of us by typing it into the comment section below. If you’re having some trouble getting it perfect, type it in and ask for suggestions on how to improve it.

And keep writing, because the story needs to be told.


  1. Very good advice, and something I always struggle with.

  2. Sean - Thanks for your comment. Openings are so very important. I have had situations where I removed the first three chapters of a book so I could get it started at the best possible point. Then I sprinkled the info from those first three chapters into the plot after that point. It resulted in a much stronger opening and getting into the action a lot quicker. It was bloody, but it needed to be done.

  3. Good stuff Michael. I did a double take when I saw your opening line. But some opening lines surely stay with you. Not sure about the dark and stormy night though.

    1. Vonnie -- sorry if shocked you, but I wanted the title to connect with the topic.

  4. Great post, Michael - gotta hook'em to keep'em reading I say! I think first lines, like taglines and blurb are a skill in themselves! Cheers!

    1. Sharon - I agree with you 100% I think query letters fall into that special category, too.

  5. I can't agree more.
    Here is the opening of my WIP "Olivia Stone and the Trouble With Trixies"


    Girls scatter. They flee the school’s courtyard like pigeons from Mouser, the old priory cat. All except Olivia.

    I think it answers yes to the three questions.


  6. Jeffrey -- Thanks for sharing. I like that opening.

  7. During an interview, Mickey Spillane said that the first page sales the novel, and the last page sales the next novel.

    1. Jim - What a great quote! I love that. And I can see how that would be true. Thanks for your comment.


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