What’s Wrong With Your Opening Line?

letters-flying-into-dictionary-pagesDo you want to know what’s wrong with your story’s opening line or opening paragraph? Probably nothing.

So many times authors are told that their opening line or their opening paragraph just isn’t killer enough. It doesn’t seize the reader and yank them into the story.  But what does that really mean?

For almost a decade, new authors thought that meant dropping the reader right into the middle of some physical struggle or verbal argument with no introduction as to who the characters were, what they were fighting about, or even where and when they were. Instead of pulling the reader into the story, it simply left them wondering why they should care enough to figure it out.

I grabbed his arm before his hand could connect with my already bruised face. His leg reached out and swept my feet out from under me. I landed hard on my hip. With a hiss of pain, I tried to roll out of the way of his swinging boot. The toe of his large work boot clipped my shoulder, and my arm grew numb. Footsteps pattered along the hallway to my left, and my heart wrenched. Mikey was awake.

Who is I? And who is I fighting with? And who is Mikey and why should we care about any of this? Is this a domestic dispute of some kind, or is it two men fighting? There is little in this example for the reader to go on. So, unless the reader loves solving unintended mysteries (who are the combatants and why are they fighting), then your potential readers will simply move on to something less confusing.

However, the next example isn’t much better. The only thing happening is description. If this is an action/adventure story, you’ve probably lost your audience at the first paragraph.

It was hot and sticky. The air felt thick and refused to move. The rattling table fan sitting on the desk next to the open window did little to cool things off. Noise from the city street fell through the window and filled Sam’s fourth floor flat with more life than it had probably ever known.

Sam sat in the desk chair staring at the open check book. The neat precise numbers marched down the columns showing him just exactly how little of his inheritance remained. He rubbed a damp hand through his thinning brown hair. The material of his stained white T-shirt clung to his perspiring back, and he wondered just what he was going to do now. 

Writers are now finally realizing that confusing the reader right from the start is nearly as bad as boring them. So, how do you grab your reader’s attention, and how do you write that epic opening line?

Use Your Skills

You grab the reader by using your skill and understanding with words and language to craft the best story you can. By focusing too much of your attention on the opening of the story, you can block the story from growing the way it should. Each story and each writer has their own rhythm . The words flow in a certain way, following an innate path, and when you force the opening into an unnatural rhythm—unnatural to the overall story and unnatural to your writing style—it can sound stilted, stiff, and uninteresting.

A great opening isn’t in the opening sentence as much as it is in the author’s ability to craft a story. For instance, our writing group does a twice-a-month writing prompt. We are all given the same opening sentence, which we then have to use to create a short story, poem, or first chapter of a book (not that we have to write the whole book, but for some writers, the writing prompt stirs something more than a short story in them).

Here are some examples of how one sentence can pull you into a story or push you away from it.

EXAMPLE 1:

“Stop or I’ll shoot,” a gruff male voice shouted at me between grunts of exertion.

I zipped along the sidewalk trying to put as much distance between me and my pursuer as I could. I couldn’t get caught now. Not before I had a chance to set things straight.

I stayed to the deeper shadows, avoiding the streetlights as best I could. The gloves and mask should make it hard for him to determine my skin and hair color. If I could get away, the only description he’d have would be medium height, dark clothes, wearing a dark hoodie.

Something smashed into the sidewalk near my foot and I heard the report of a gunshot.

Geez, I couldn’t believe he was actually shooting.

I started to zig-zag my way toward the maze of alleyways ahead when there was another gunshot. At nearly the same moment, something sharp sliced across my upper arm. Damn, I hissed. That really hurt. I ducked around the corner into the alley and immediately hooked my good arm over the pipe that I used as a ladder to the second-floor window of the abandoned warehouse.

EXAMPLE 2:

“Stop or I’m gonna shoot!” the gunman shouted as he waved his weapon toward the hostages.

Our hoped-for take down of the hostage-taker aborted, my partner and I stopped and raised our arms. My partner’s face was drawn as she whispered, “What do we do now?”

I opened my mouth to answer, and burst out laughing. A moment later, my partner, joined in.

“Cut…cut,” the director turned to us. “Really?”

“I’m sorry,” I muttered as we continued laughing. “But you have to admit, it’s a bit cliché.” The writing for this show had been getting so insipid lately; not that the show had ever been more than your basic cop drama. I played the rugged, rumpled, and slightly jaded cop, whose instincts were nearly always right; while up-and-coming actress, Pam Brewer, played my over-eager, naïve, rookie partner. As I said, very typical. Still, the writing had never been this hackneyed.

The director gave us several minutes to pull ourselves together, and we set up to do the scene again.

EXAMPLE 3:

“Stop or I’ll shoot,” yelled the tall, handsome, dark-haired man as he held his revolver pointed at Jane. The night air was warm, yet Jane—a statuesque blonde with figure that would make Mattel’s Barbie envious—could feel the goosebumps rise all along her arms. She had no idea how she was going to get out of this predicament.

Graceful and elegant in her midnight blue, designer sheath-style dress, she turned so that her four-inch-heeled Louboutan’s were now pointed toward Rick. Oh, it wasn’t the first time she had faced Rick, but it was the first time that she’d faced him when he’d held a gun on her. What was he thinking, anyway?

EXAMPLE 4:

“I’m gonna start shooting!” The threat echoed down the hallway as Suze fumbled with the door.

She twisted the knob again while yanking at the door. The hinges squealed as the door crashed open. Suze dashed onto the set just as the photographer raised his camera. Pete was probably one of the best commercial photographers around, but he was impatient, demanding, and cold…in a hot kind of way.

If it weren’t for his personality, she might have actually found Pete attractive. He had sapphire eyes and midnight hair, with a face that was more interesting than handsome. As for the body, well…let’s just say, she wouldn’t mind cozying up to that body. A warm shiver raced down her spine, but soon turned cold when his steely gaze pierced her, his impatience plainly visible.

Suze used one hand to stop the swaying of the hoop skirt on the period gown she was wearing and adjusted the low-cut bodice. They were in some museum-quality ballroom with bright filigree everywhere, and parquet floors. Several other models in satin britches or lace and satin gowns were also positioned in small groups and pairings throughout the room. This week Suze was selling Real Nature products, maple syrup and hot dogs. What maple syrup had to do with a fancy, dress ball, she had no idea.

Even the given writing prompt is subjective, as each writer changed it to fit the story he or she was creating. It’s still the same basic premise, but the writers changed the words to suit the circumstances of their stories. And that’s why an opening line or paragraph 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 novel, just as you (as a reader) aren’t moved by every first line or paragraph you read.

So, don’t overthink the opening to your story, but do craft it well enough that it invites the reader into your story.

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