For some of us, writing fiction seems a lot like trying to pick up a Hot Stranger in a bar: The opening line makes or breaks us. If we blow our opening line in a bar, the Stranger turns off, never to find out what scintillating people we are; in a book, the reader stops, never to find out what scintillating prose awaits them on page two.
In other words, if we don’t grab them immediately, it’s over.
Or so we think. Of course, grabbing doesn’t have to involve a chokehold. But it does have to make readers (or Strangers) want to find out more. To engage them. Build curiosity. Create intrigue and draw them in.
Guest column by Merry Jones, author of the Harper Jennings thrillers,
SUMMER SESSION and BEHIND THE WALLS, as well as the Zoe Hayes
mysteries, THE NANNY MURDERS, THE RIVER KILLINGS, THE DEADLY
NEIGHBORS, THE BORROWED AND BLUE MURDERS. She has also
written humor (including I LOVE HIM, BUT…) and nonfiction (including
BIRTHMOTHERS, Women who relinquished babies for adoption tell their
stories.) Jones is a member of the Philadelphia Liars Club, Mystery Writers
of America and The Authors Guild. Visit her at MerryJones.com.
Find links to all her books here.
Convinced about the importance of immediate grabbing, many writers sweat over these opening lines. Even talented, accomplished authors can find first lines daunting, getting intimidated, believing that these lines have to be perfect. Powerful. Strong. Meaningful. Dramatic. Unique. After all, these first sentences are supposed to set tone, establish style, lead readers into the world of the book—In short: hook them.
So what is it, exactly, that makes a good opening line? Are there rules? Definitions? Does anyone really know? Maybe looking at some will help. Of course, Snoopy’s “It was a dark and stormy night” is unbeatable. But consider these:
“Mrs. Ferrars died on the night of the 16-17th September—a Thursday.”
-- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie
“Last night I dreamt I was in Manderley again.”
-- Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
“Patsy sat by herself at the beginning of the evening, eating a melted chocolate bar.
-- Moving On, by Larry McMurtry
“They’re out there.”
-- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
“I am ninety.”
-- Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen
“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”
-- The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
“It was a Sunday morning at the peak of spring.”
-- The Judgment, by Franz Kafka
“It was a slow Sunday afternoon, the kind Walden loved.”
-- The Man from St. Petersburg, by Ken Follett
These opening lines are by iconic fiction writers. And, in a way, each sets a tone and presents key information. But, honestly, if you didn’t know where these sentences came from, would you think they were anything special? Please. “It was a slow Sunday afternoon…”? Or, “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning…”?
No, to me, the important thing isn’t the opening sentence; it’s all the sentences that follow it. Without a compelling story and appealing characters, these opening lines, even though by such distinguished authors, would be just—well, sentences.
So here’s the deal, or my theory of the deal: These authors didn’t worry about the opening sentence; they just started telling their stories. There has to be a beginning. That beginning might indicate time and place, might introduce a character. Might reveal a thought. Present a fact. Drop in on some event or action in the middle. Whatever starts the telling makes the first sentence. Just as whatever concludes the story will make the last.
Mickey Spillane supposedly said that the beginning sells the novel and the end sells the next one. But that gives the first and last lines a lot of responsibility, causes lots of pressure. For me, the advice of my wise third grade teacher works just fine and doesn’t cause as much anxiety. Mrs. Kellen told her classs, “The best way to start is to start.”
So that’s what I do. No perfect first sentence involved. No need for fancy phrasing or affected action. I just start.
So far, that’s been great advice for writing. I imagine it would also work for picking up Hot Strangers in a bar. If you try it, let me know?
Hook agents, editors and readers immediately.
Check out Les Edgerton's guide, HOOKED, to
learn about how your fiction can pull readers in.
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