Do you want that story you just wrote to pull in your reader? Do you want your characters to jump off the page and into your readers’ minds?
Intriguing your readers so that they want to continue reading your book is not easily accomplished. You need to pique their curiosity by asking a question, setting up some unique and interesting situation, showing them something relatable, or engaging their senses.
While many an author tries (and while most authors think they have succeeded), the truth is, a lot of authors fail miserably. It isn’t something that is easily done, and it isn’t something that is easily taught.
Finding just the right opening to your book can happen easily or not at all. This isn’t because you’re not a good writer. More often, it’s because you’re trying too hard. Most new writers overthink that opening line instead of letting the story flow naturally. If you allow the story to lead you, you have a much better chance of coming up with an organic and meaningful first line.
One of the best opening lines that I have ever read is from the first Rachel Morgan book, Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison. This opening line not only hooks the reader, it introduces the main character in a way that makes her unique and relatable.
I stood in the shadows of a deserted shop front across from The Blood and Brew Pub, trying not to be obvious as I tugged my black leather pants back up where they belonged.
To me, that line not only gives me a sense of place, it tells me this story isn’t ‘normal.’ After all, how many pubs do you know with blood in their name? And it begs you to find out why this character is standing in the shadows casing some pub. Is she the protagonist or antagonist? At this point, it’s hard to tell, but I’d like to know more. Yet, at the same time, I find myself relating to her tugging at the pants. (I mean, how many times have you found yourself having to do the same thing, when your pants just won’t stay where they belong?)
However, what constitutes a good opening line (or even a good opening paragraph) seems to be quite subjective. After all, every reader and every author is different. So, what intrigues me, may not intrigue you. But I’ve included some more opening lines (and paragraphs) with my opinion as to why they do or don’t work.
When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.
That line is so odd that I can’t help but read further to find out why the character, Nick Dunne, would make such a bizarre statement. (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn)
The primroses were over. Toward the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s mercury and oak tree roots.
Between overdone descriptions and long sentences, this is not an opening that would intrigue or inspire me to continue. (However, I will admit, I did push on and finish this book. It was interesting despite it’s overblown descriptive passages.) (Watership Down by Richard Adams)
It was either Thomas Jefferson—or maybe it was John Wayne—who once said, “Your foot will never get well as long as there is a horse standing on it.”
Again, the oddity of the sentence makes me want to read more if just to find out what (if anything) that statement has to do with the overall story. I love a bit of quirky humor, so this just sets my mouth for more. However, someone who is expecting something more in tune with the book’s promised premise may simply close the book and walk away. (The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank by Erma Bombeck)
It must have been 1963, because the musical of Dombey & Son was running at the Alexandra, and it must have been the autumn, because it was surely some time in October that a performance was seriously delayed because two of the cast had slipped and hurt themselves in B dressing-room corridor, and the reason for that was that the floor appeared to be flooded with something sticky and glutinous. (At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald)
Unfortunately, this run-on and extremely boring sentence left me wanting to close the book, not read it. All I kept thinking was that if the opening sentence was this long and convoluted, then I didn’t want to wade through the overdone prose to find the story.
And my favorite opening line (I have to say that because it’s from one of my own books), is:
Have you ever thought about what happens when we die? (Escorting the Dead by TA Sullivan)
It’s succinct, clear, and just begs you to read more.
But as you can see, the success or failure of an opening line is quite subjective. And that’s why hooking your reader has more to do with the author’s ability to craft a good story using just the right cadence and words, than it is has to do with a single sentence or a single paragraph. After all, not every reader is going to be moved by the opening line to your book any more than every reader is moved by the following opening line, “Mr. Phileas Fogg lived, in 1872, at No. 7, Saville Row, Burlington Gardens, the house in which Sheridan died in 1814.”*
So, don’t overthink the opening to your story, but do craft it well enough that it invites the reader into your story.
*This is the opening line to Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne