I know, I know. Opening Lines have kind of been discussed to the point of zzzz, but I was going through my backlog of SCBWI bulletins and came across an AWESOME article by Kim Tomsic with information on this topic that smacked me right upside the head. I’m willing to throw myself into the Opening Lines Traffic Jam because this technique is too effective and simple not to share with the world.
In essence, the author attended a conference presentation by Richard Peck, who told attendees that “action in books for the young must start before the opening line.” I had to read that a few times to realize that, yes, indeed, it’s a good idea—which I would say can be extended to writers of all genres and audiences. The example that Peck gave was from After, by Francine Prose: “Minutes after the shootings, everybody’s cell phones rang.” And here’s another example from possibly my favorite read of 2013, Between Shades of Grey, by Ruta Sepetys: “They took me in my nightgown.”
*pause for dramatic effect*
Wow, right? By referencing an exciting and important event that happens before the start of the story, the author has hooked readers right away in a way that isn’t contrived or forced. And that’s the key to this technique: the event referenced has to be important—to the plot, for characterization, etc.; it can’t be something that’s just thrown in to grab reader attention.
Here are some other stellar examples from some of the books I’ve read (and, for the most part, loved):
Wool – Part One (Hugh Howey): “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do.”
The Friday Society (Adrienne Kress): “And then there was an explosion.”
Dreamlander (K.M. Weiland): “Dreams weren’t supposed to be able to kill you. But this one was sure trying its best.”
The Raven Boys (Maggie Stiefvater): “Blue Sargent has forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.”
Delirium: The Special Edition (Lauren Oliver): “It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure.”
The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold): “My name was Salmon, like the fish: first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” (Ok, so this zinger doesn’t come until the second sentence, but it’s just as effective.)
Chime (Franny Billingsley): “I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged.”
The Wicked and the Just (J. Anderson Coats): “Tonight at supper, over capon and relish, my father ruined my life.”
What’s cool about this technique is that it doesn’t have to be applied to only explosive or catastrophic events. By referencing a relatively quiet event in the first line of your story, you can give it importance and create intrigue:
The Hero and the Crown (Robin McKinley): “She could not remember a time when she had not known the story; she had grown up knowing it.”
Al Capone Does My Shirts (Gennifer Choldenko): Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water.
So if you’re looking for a simple method to creating that perfectly intriguing first line, use it to reference something important that happened before the first line. For added punch, state it in a slightly ambiguous (though not confusing) way that will make readers want to know more, like in the McKinley first line: What story had she grown up knowing? Is it a good or bad story? The same is true for Billingsley’s opener: What did she confess to? And why on earth does she want to be hanged?
Crafting the perfect first line can be stressful, but hopefully these tips will remove some of the agony :).
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Don Q says
Interesting and quite effective. It does, however, put the author in the position of having to use flashback techniques. The reader immediately needs to know the past. This is the hook but it could also drive the narrative.
BECCA PUGLISI says
It can result in a flashback, but it doesn’t have to. The opening line can be a quick thought or a statement that ties in to the current story. For many of the examples quoted above, it’s an event that literally just happened, and so moving on means the reader is immersed in the present-day story. There are lots of ways to do this effectively—-flashbacks included :).
My favorite opening in “modern era” books is in King’s Dark Tower I: “The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed”. Yea its basic, but man it was a hook for me back when I first read that.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
That is a great example! I love this series, and I can’t wait for the movie. 🙂
Laurie Evans says
I love reading and memorizing great first lines. I have Wool in my kindle, I want to read it soon.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I have it on my Kindle too and can’t wait to read 🙂
Good idea. I’ve been trying to think of a way to describe those sentences. Thank you.
This is a great post with much food for thought. Thanks, especially, for all the great examples.
Rosemary Gemmell says
Many thanks for this, Becca – just what I needed for something I’m working on!
Interesting. I know the advice I have long heard is something like “Start as close to the action as possible”, but the idea of starting AFTER is one I’ve never seen put to words before. Yet I think about a lot of books that open this way. Thanks for sharing, Becca.
becca puglisi says
Jeff, I’ve thought about this, too, because a big turnoff for me is a book that jumps right in to action before I know the characters or the stakes. I like this method of referencing an important event in the opening line because that’s all it is: a reference. A couple of sentences, maybe a paragraph to wet the reader’s interest without dropping them into an unfamiliar scenario and expecting them to stick with it.