Yank Your Reader Into Your Story With a Great Opening Line

By Jennie Nash  © 2016 Originally published on thebookdesigner.com.

(NOTE FROM LANES: This is the first in a series of 8 blogs written for thebookdesigner.com. While these articles are directed to writers, much of thinking and advice proffered here will also be of interest to those who work with oral narratives.)

My mission as a book coach is to help writers write the best books they can, which means paying attention to:

  • the macro elements (the story or argument the book makes)
  • the micro elements (the words on the page)
  • the emotional realities of the writing life (the habits that lead to success)

I’ve developed a series of posts to help you learn how to write one really great chapter so that you can take those lessons and apply them to all your work. Up first? How to write a great opening line.

Hook Your Reader With a Great Opening Line

Readers in the Information Age are expert consumers, and they tend to make lightning-fast decisions about whether to buy a book or to keep reading it. Many times, they make a judgment based on just a few opening lines. Why read further, after all, when there’s another book – or a post or a podcast or a funny meme about cats — just a click away?

It pays to write a great opening line that hooks your reader and yanks them into your story. A great first line can give your readers the DNA of the whole book, which serves as a promise and an invitation we can’t refuse.

As Stephen King says:

A quick clarification: what do I mean by the first line? I am not being strict here; it doesn’t have to be just one sentence or just one actual line of text. Think of it as the first breath of the novel, the first gulp.

Key Elements of a Great Opening Line

Here are 5 key elements a great opening line contains:

  1. Authority — a sense that the writer is in charge.


The Latin meaning of author is “enlarger, founder, master, leader.” You need to be the master of your story, the leader of your readers, because readers don’t come to books to wander around in the dark. We want to be led. We want to go somewhere and to trust that the author knows exactly where we  are going. Feeling this authority is both thrilling and comforting – like embarking on a trip to a foreign country under the care of a knowledgeable guide. If you take too long to get going, or if your start out defensively, or passively, you’ve already begun to lose your reader before you even get off the first page.

  1. A Point — a sense that the writer has something specific to say.


We come to books for something very specific — to be entertained or educated, comforted or inspired. The best books make a very clear point about human nature or the universe, and this is as true of non-fiction books on serious topics as it is of young adult books about dragons or historical fiction about kings and queens. That point could be, “Cheaters never prosper,” “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” or “Beware your friends more than your enemies.” Your point often seems like a cliché  when you are writing, but is made specific by what you put on the page. 
A great first line captures the story’s point in some way, even if it’s just a  whisper or a hint. This means, of course, that you have to know what you are  writing about before you start to write.

According to John Irving:

  1. Momentum — a sense that something important is happening right now.

You want to open your story at the moment your protagonist can no longer ignore the ticking clock (in fiction/memoir) or at the moment your readers know they must make a change (in nonfiction). We want a feeling that we have been dropped into the middle of something big, something pressing, something that will have important consequences either to the protagonist or to us as readers. Make sure the wolf is at the door right from second one – and not some random wolf, but the wolf your protagonist most fears. That’s what will capture your reader’s curiosity and get them turning the page.

  1. Voice – the sound of the words on the page.


Voice is one of those things that is difficult to describe, but easy to recognize.   We all know when we are reading something that has a unique and compelling voice; it sounds as if we are getting a sneak peak into someone else’s mind, and their heart, and their soul. It sounds raw and real, not contrived. It has an organic rhythm and flow that is pleasing to the ear – and it makes sense and engenders trust.

  1. Mechanical Accuracy — the English language has rules. Our job is to know them and follow them.


Nothing kills an opening line – or any written line – faster than a mechanical error. Errors leap off the page and scream out at the reader – and suddenly they are not paying attention to your story anymore; they have morphed into an English teacher with a red pen.
 Need a refresher course on the Oxford comma? Need to try, once again, to understand the difference between affect and effect (that would be me)? Study The Chicago Manual of Style, The Elements of Style or the entries of Grammar Girl.

 Case Studies – Four Great Opening Lines

  1. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

  • Massive authority – you can just feel it. You are ready to follow this author into this journey.
  • A hint of the point – something about life and death and faith and friendship.
  • Momentum – heck yes. We want to know about the boy, the wrecked voice, why he was so smart, how he killed the mother and what any of that has to do with God.
  • Voice – the word “doomed,” the rhythmic phrasing (“boy with a wrecked voice,” “instrument of my mother’s death” the whole flow of it.
  • Proper use of the Oxford comma (commas before every item on a list), semi-colon, caps on God and Christian.
  1. The Martian by Andy Weir


(*asterisks here added by me.)

  • Massive authority – you can just feel it. You are ready to follow this author into this journey.
  • A hint of the point – this is going to be a story about survival.
  • Momentum – heck yes. We want to know how, exactly, the guy is f***ed, what happened six days ago, why it was going to be so great, and how the nightmare is going to end.
  • Voice – opening with one, single forbidden word, repeating it, the whole rhythm of it, combined with the oddly erudite phrase “my considered opinion.”
  • Mechanically accurate.
  1. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

  • Massive authority – you can just feel it. You are ready to follow this author into this journey.
  • A hint of the point – this is going to be a story about the peculiarities of the writing life.
  • Momentum – heck yes. We want to know what this girl grew up to become, what she thought when she got into that room herself (because you know she’s going to), and how she found a way to keep a.) employed and b.) not mentally ill.
  • Voice – fabulous narrative drive – the sentences drive through from beginning to end like a freight train. And funny! Come on, didn’t you chuckle at that last line, even if you’ve read the book?
  • Mechanically accurate. Proper use of the Oxford comma, no “head hopping” (where the narrator gets into another person’s head where they can’t possibly know what’s happening.)
  1. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

  • Massive authority – you can just feel it. You are ready to follow this author into this journey.
  • A hint of the point – this is going to be a story about the difficulty of balancing obedience and wildness, which we all feel from time to time.
  • Momentum – heck yes. We want to know what happens to poor Max, who is still in his wolf suit and who is going to be very hungry, and how he is going to solve the problem of having treated his mother badly.
  • Voice – There is beautiful internal alliteration – “made mischief” and vivid imagery even without the pictures – the wolf suit, the boy calling his mother a wild thing. This expert also has fabulous narrative drive.
  • Mechanically accurate. Exclamations inside the quotation marks, mother NOT capped since it is not being used as a name.

Go check out your own opening lines and use these elements to test it. Then go and make it great.

 


nash-jennieJennie Nash has worked in publishing for more than 30 years. She is the author of four novels, three memoirs, and The Writer’s Guide to Agony and Defeat. She has been an instructor at the UCLA Extension Writing Program for 10 years and is the founder and chief creative officer of Author Accelerator, an online program that offers customized book coaching for the determined writer.

Jennie runs a private book-coaching business. Her clients have landed top New York agents; had books published by Scribner, Simon & Schuster, Norton, Ten Speed and Hazeldon; and won Indie Excellence awards in two categories.

Visit her at jennienash.com and authoraccelerator.com.

 


Comments

Yank Your Reader Into Your Story With a Great Opening Line — 1 Comment

  1. Hi, Jennie – Very interesting and lots of good information for writers, but just to note that re Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, it is the mother who calls the boy “Wild Thing!” not the reverse as you state. I know, you were just trying to see if we were paying attention! Thanks.

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