How to grab your readers with a killer opening line

Call me Ishmael, but I figure the oldest and dumbest cliche in the how-to-write industry has to be the one about opening lines.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Was it the proud sail of his great verse”? – public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, that’s because opening lines work. They drag the reader, kicking and screaming, into the words. And it’s true for all writing, not just novels. Journalists have to master the technique from the get-go. So do bloggers.

The opening line has to grab the reader – emotionally. It can do that by posing a question, or creating a sense of unfinished business. ‘In a hole in a ground lived a Hobbit…’

What’s a ‘Hobbit’? When that line floated into J. R. R. Tolkien’s mind, around 1930, he didn’t know either. He had to write the novel to find out.

However, that experience of having a killer opening line first off isn’t too common. Usually they have to be wrestled into existence. That, I figure, is also why writers often sit there with blank page, or a lone cursor winking at them on screen, and – don’t start.

Part of the problem is that we’re not often told how to write one. Recently I pointed out that advertisers have a lot to offer.

But there’s also the fact that – often – the writer won’t yet know exactly what they’re drawing the reader into. Tolkien didn’t – he had to write The Hobbit to find out. Most of us, though, have ideas when we start, but can’t quite figure out the way that translates into the starting words. So try this trick: don’t write one. Today’s age of word processing makes it easy to start writing without that first line, then back-fill. Often the line will pop into mind as you go along. Indeed, that first line might be the last thing you write into the work.

What does an opening line demand? It must:

1. Grab – by posing that question, often perhaps built around an emotion. The book opens with a character crying. Why?

2. Hold – by making that question compelling. Why should we bother with this character crying? What’s different?

3. Draw – pull the reader on. This means the second line has to be equally as ‘grabby’. And the first paragraph.

The trick is to make all this happen in ways consistent with the style and tone you’ve chosen for the book – not to have that first sentence hanging out there as an over-written, over-constructed device. Even though it is, when it comes down to it, exactly that.

Do you ever have trouble with opening lines? Have you ever read a book and been hooked from the get-go? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook coming soon.

You can still buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

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16 comments on “How to grab your readers with a killer opening line

  1. EagleAye says:

    Great stuff. I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing lately. If I have a post with pictures, usually the first pic is the one I like best, or close to it. I feel like that first image has to snare the viewer. In a recent story I posted, I saw the opportunity to begin with a real bang, and I took it. Story is here: http://momusnews.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/the-last-demon-hunt-tipsy-lit/

  2. leslieberry says:

    The opening line of a story is one of the last things I complete. No matter how many times I think I’ve got the right opener, by the time I reach the end it seldom remains that way. As a reader I like opening lines but they don’t have to be dramatic – just offer something intriguing that makes me want to read the next sentence and then the next until I reach the last page of the book. That takes hard work and requires both writing and editing skills. There are many books I’ve set aside and not read because the opening lines didn’t hold my interest. I’m sure many of them were good reads but for me, beginnings matter.

  3. symplysilent says:

    Hi Michael,

    I’m a member of Scribophile, which is a critique site. The opening is the first thing I look for in a story, which is good, because that is the first thing we come to, after the title, and the name of the author. Those two, plus the opening all have to work together.

    When I read a Regency, it really helps when the author’s name and the title tell me something, get me to open the cover. An interesting cover will help. And, then, I get to the first word, the first line, and the first paragraph.

    When I write, I literally start with the second paragraph. You are right in that I have a plan for the story, but it might not turn out that way. And I have the freedom to change.

    On the other hand, I know writers who write the first paragraph and the last scene, before they write anything else. And they might spend days and days doing that. Then, for them, all they have to do is fill in the missing 99% of the story.

    Others, like me, start with a scene from somewhere in the story, in any one of the four parts, and understand it. Then work backward and forward from it.

    Thank you,

    Silent

  4. Cymbria Wood says:

    “I have to warn you,” said the woman standing in the doorway, “we have a habit of destroying our men.”

    The tragedy here, of course, is that my next hundred sentences died on the table… ah well, better luck to any other brave soul who dares this entry (literally and figuratively lol)…

    • Oh, I don’t know – all good writers end up sitting in a pile of dead words…

      ‘“I have to warn you,” said the woman standing in the doorway, “we have a habit of destroying our men.”
      “And I have to warn you,” said the man sitting at the table, “we have a habit of destroying our women.”‘

      Intrigue. I double-dog dare ya to write the third line! :-)

      • Cymbria Wood says:

        …The woman stepped into the room and, with a grand flourish of skirts and scarfs, took her seat at the table and added her signature to the contract…

        I never turn down a dare! Um…. maybe that’s a dangerous thing to admit to ;)

  5. quirkybooks says:

    Thanks Matthew for this inspiring article. I just checked my new Break through the barriers of redundancy book and yes, it has a good opening, posing more than one question. I can tick that box off. It is finished in principal now, but I still need to re-read it again.

    • It[s surprising what a re-read will often pick up. And all the best for every success with your book!

      • quirkybooks says:

        Thanks. The trouble is, being very self-critical, I keep on picking up on stuff, and I have got to be careful that I don’t try to improve it so much that the original message is lost.

        • Self-crit is good, though! One trick might be to put the MS in a drawer for a month, don’t think about it – then come back to it and re-read for content and sense. If time permits, of course.

          • quirkybooks says:

            I know that trick. It’s taken me just over a year to complete it in total. I keep leaving it for a week or more, or a few days but I have people waiting to buy it so I will have to get on with publishing it soon. I have added a ton of new content to it recently and that is why I need to go through it again.

  6. KM Huber says:

    For me, it is the first line in any piece of writing that tells me whether or not I want to continue. I am almost silly about it, I suspect. It comes from my early days in journalism; our managing editor grilled us about “the lead” in every story that appeared. I cannot say that I have ever been disappointed in a piece with a great lead. Of course, there is writing I have read that did not grab me in the first line or paragraph as there are always other reasons to read a piece.

    As for writing, my opening line almost always comes last. As you say, I write to it, essentially, having a kernel of an idea and when that is developed, I work and work on the opening line. I find them difficult but the really good ones make the work worthwhile.

    Great post, Matthew!
    Karen

    • Thanks. That ‘opening line punch’ is something I also picked up in my journalism days, and it’s stood me in good stead ever since. Getting the ‘right’ opening line is indeed very difficult, but always worth the effort.

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