Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Importance of an Opening Line

We all know the importance of the first three paragraphs to an agent, an editor, and a reader—hook ‘em right away, keep ‘em hooked. Excellent advice, to be sure. But what about the opening line? If all you could present was the opening sentence of your work in progress, would one of these three important people want to keep reading?

Let’s take a classic example.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
--C. Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Interesting. “When?” we ask. “Why?” and “Where?” Always good to engender questions—it makes the reader want to continue, want to discover the answers.

Now a contemporary example:

“About last night,” I began awkwardly.
--J. Lanyon, Perfect Day

“Ooo,” you say. “What about last night? Sounds juicy.” And on you go, seeking the answer.

One more—from a modern day thriller:

When the first man woke up that morning, he wasn’t thinking about killing anyone.
--J. Sandford, Easy Prey

Yep, I’m going to keep reading.

But you can take it to ridiculous extremes. The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest seeks out “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” The contest is named after Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who wrote:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is I London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
--E.G. Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

Certainly as purple as prose can get. Interest drowned in verbosity after the em dash.

What’s your opening line? Does it make the reader want to journey on, keep reading? Can it be stronger?
If you like, leave your opening line in the comments section.

Once upon a misspent youth, Whitley read and wrote stories under the covers at night. Years later, inventing characters and putting them through their paces in interesting ways turned out to be addictive, and along the way Whitley discovered that two heroes is twice as nice. A pot of coffee and a creating an adventure featuring a couple of guys makes for a perfect day. Stop by www.whitleygray.com and feed your fix for heat between the sheets with erotica and M/M romance.


  1. One of my all time favorite opening lines was from one of Laurell K. Hamilton's books: "The most beautiful corpse I'd ever seen was sitting behind my desk."

    It definitely kept me reading. I've heard an editor give a fascinating talk on opening lines and how they should draw the reader in. It's made me more conscious of where I start my stories.

  2. I tend to use dialogue; however, some people don't like dialogue openings. Doesn't bother me and puts one immediately in the story. For example: "He said I was a terrible kisser."

  3. Alexis--
    That's a doozy; I'd keep reading too! I tend to spend a lot of time trying to figure out good opening and closing lines for each chapter.

    I like dialogue as an opener. It works just as well as prose, IMHO.

    Thanks for commenting!

  4. I write suspense so I like to open with some action, or a suspenseful scene. Worked for my first novel. Lets see if it will work for the second. Loved your post.
    Thanks for sharing

  5. That Bulwer-Lytton contest is kind of fun ... I entered it a few times but never won anything. But just think, suppose Dickens had written:

    "It was the best of limes, it was the worst of
    limes, thought Sydney, the greengrocer, as he
    stood there pondering the wide variation in
    quality to be found in the cartons of green
    fruit he had just received from the Two Cities
    Produce Company, but then, he continued to
    himself, what the Dickens did it matter?

  6. LKF--
    Thanks for reading!

    Very clever. I got a good laugh out of this. Did you send this one in to the contest? It actually makes a nice little flash fiction piece. Have you tried placing it?
    Thanks for reading--

  7. Whitley - I love looking at first lines - include them in my book reviews - I agree, that first line needs to suck a reader in for the long haul:) Nice post;)
    In fact, I have many pages of notebooks loaded with first lines I imagined as starting a story. It was fun, even though I'll probably never use a one of them (LOL)

  8. Hi, Kay Dee!
    I write those down too. If nothing else, it reminds me of the power of those first few words.
    Glad you liked the post!