Once Upon a Time.jpeg

“Can you hold this for me real quick?” The stranger slides a black package in my lap before I have a chance to respond. It jostles on top of my nervous knees as I hear it start to tick.

What are you feeling right now, after you’ve read that line? Think about the emotion on your mind at the moment. Chances are, you’re curious. Maybe a little nervous. After all, who wouldn’t be - in that situation. This is what opening lines are all about. They set the scene and ideally, put your reader into the story right away. But I want to set the tone of the story first, the classics never tried to start ‘in medias res’, they took their time, you might say.

This is true, but there’s a reason those are called classics. They are representative of a time long past, but have flourished due to their exemplary nature. There’s nothing wrong with them, but there’s a reason “It was a dark and stormy night” has become cliche. Everyone knows it already. Your readers certainly do. So as an innovative and original writer, what are you to do? Our venerable Riley Westbrook has provided you with a great lead-in and some good advice. 

To add to it, I would say that your Opening Line should immediately establish the following:

  • The narrative voice of the story
    • Why? This gives insight into the lead character (if first person) or into the narrator. Some people know right off the bat whether or not this book will work for them by the tone of voice in the opening lines. It could be wistful, sarcastic, funny, absurd, dramatic, angry, sad or any combination of emotions. Even the way the author chooses to describe a sunset will tell the reader something about what kind of writing lies ahead. For books narrated by one of the characters, the voice is the determining factor that influences the reader to pick up the book - this person has to start telling the story in a way that makes you want to spend enough time with them to hear the rest. Consider this: you’re about to be told a funny story about something that happened at the grocery store. Would you rather hear your mom’s version, your sister’s version or your best friend’s version? Each one might start the story in a slightly different way. The answer to that question should tell you about whose voice is best suited to tell that story in a way that makes it funny to you.
    • Examples:
      •  “You’ll never believe what happened to me at the grocery store today!”
      • “OMG Can I tell you something? So I went to the grocery story to get some apples and…”
      • “Yo, the stupidest thing just happened! I was out getting stuff from the store when…”
  • The style of the prose.
    • Why? Because whether or not your story has cutaways, asides, internal monologues, or a prologue will also inform the reader whether or not this story meets their tastes. This is part of the reason Amazon offers that Look Inside preview - to give potential readers a taste of how this book’s story is likely to be told. Some books may have a specific structure to it, like being written in the form of journal entries, emails or even text conversations. Readers generally know if that’s a format they’re willing to stick with, so be aware that if you’re switching up styles later on in the book, it can have an impact on reader expectations. This is particularly relevant when it comes to switching POV and formats in your book. If you’re consistent throughout, then you run less of a risk of losing the reader, based on their expectations of what the style was going to be from the opening line. 
  • The First Line Hook
    • Why? The hook is often what’s discussed first when we talk about creating opening lines. There are many articles dedicated to showing you how to hook your reader from page one. Let’s review some types of First Line Hooks:
      • In the Middle of the Action - A hail of gunfire pinning down an innocent. 
      • A Vivid Image - A bright pink flower blooming amongst the smoldering black ruin of a forest fire.
      • A Summation of the Story - This is the story of how a great love toppled the empire.
      • A Philosophy - They say you should always keep your friends close, but your enemies closer…
      • A Line of Dialogue - “Whatever you do, don’t drop the bomb.”
    • Each of these first line hooks has a different effect on your reader. It may or may not work to get them to read your book. A lot of this has to do with their expectations of what they’re about to read. For some, In the Middle of the Action is exactly what they want out of a gritty crime novel, whereas using this for a complicated fantasy novel with a huge war featuring 13 races may not work, as readers won’t know the stakes right away. Likewise A Philosophy may work for Literary or Historical fiction, but perhaps less so for Romance, given what the readers are looking for. Of course, a talented writer can make anything work, but it helps to know what the challenges and expectations are.
  • The genre of the book
    • Why? The types of acceptable opening lines can be genre specific, as readers will pick up a genre book to have a certain type of experience ie. Romance-lovers will open a book hoping to feel a certain rush of emotions such as excitement, intrigue or lust from reading the text. Fantasy fans, on the other hand may be seeking a more detailed & immersive form of escape into a land of magic and races and swordplay. Sci-fi aficionados may be looking for the mix of technology and wonder right off the bat. So how you open your book will be judged by the genre-expectations of the reader. Certain openings are expected, for example in Historical fiction one of the first things we’d expect to see is the date whereas with Fantasy we might expect to start off with a description of the lineage of a particular race, custom or conflict. Romance readers may prefer a flowery passage on the nature of feelings, or a captivating look at the main character’s object of affection. While we’d like to keep things original and there are no hard & fast rules, being aware of genre expectations gives you both freedom and guidance as to how you open your novel.

Now your Gentleman Ninja (yours truly) will take you to task. Click here to download the Write-An-Opening Worksheet, which contains some neat little thought exercises to get your brain moving about what kinds of Opening Lines you can create. What’s more, because we always want to hear from you, feel free to post your worksheets on your own Member Showcase threads and discuss!