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.
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.