The Opening Line

The Opening Line

Tuesday, we talked about your opening scene and what purpose it serves. It needs to introduce the main character, explain why that character is interesting, and lead into the plot. Today, we’ll focus in a little more and look at the first paragraph of the book.

Some of these things may seem like they overlap with Tuesday’s post. They’re supposed to. For obvious reasons, what you’ve chosen for your first scene affects what you do in the first line.

This is where your real hook is. A lot of people will turn down a book if it has a bad first line. Someone in a book store will likely read that line before they decide whether to buy the book. Perhaps more importantly, if you send your book to an agent or an acquisitions editor, that’s where they will start. A weak first line can kill your book before it ever sees print.

Obviously, if your first scene follows the instructions I outlined a couple days ago, you’ll be strong there. But you still have to manage to open that scene.

There are all sorts of resources on how to write hooks, but I’ve discovered that there aren’t many on how to be sure they feed into your story. It would be like going fishing, baiting your hooks, then just throwing them as far out into the water as you can, leaving your fishing rod in the car. Too often, the focus is on hooking the reader into that line, but you can’t keep them engaged. So how do you ensure that your hook is attached to your story?

Unfortunately, there’s no one answer to this question. Tolkien opened The Hobbit with an explanation of what hobbit-holes look like. Butcher opens Storm Front with a mailman coming to the door. You can open in the middle of a battle or at the end of a long day.

But there are some general tips that may be helpful.

First, you have to move into some kind of conflict right away. Tolkien talks about hobbit-holes, but he is explaining how they aren’t the way you would think of them. Dickens used “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” to show a conflict immediately.

If you start in narration that no one cares about or, worse, a prologue that is just random information you want the reader to know, your reader will lose interest before they manage to get any further.

If you start with a philosophical dialogue or political rant, you may engage your reader for a moment, but you will lose them once they get to the story.

Second, the reader needs to quickly have a reason to care about what is going on. The worst thing someone can say about your story is “I don’t know why I care.” You have to be sure that you are drawing interest from the very first line.

Don’t cheat, of course. Prologues seem like an easy way to draw interest and info dump at the same time, but they rarely work out that way. You can certainly explain why whatever is going on is super important, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into the reader caring.

Alternatively, I’ve seen books that jumped right into action that had nothing to do with the plot. No matter how well-written the first line was, once you realize that the opening isn’t relevant to the main story arc, you’re turned off. After all, if you were hooked by the opening, you want to read that book, not the one you are holding.
In either case, your reader may keep going, but they might end up upset that they bothered reading your book, which is hardly the attitude you want from your readers.

Finally, be sure that your main character (or at least one of them) is involved in the first paragraph. You don’t necessarily have to introduce the character then, but he or she has to be relevant. Remember, your reader doesn’t know who this person is. You have to show them who it is that they care about.

It’s important, whenever you’re writing, to be sure that you are writing good hooks, but it’s even more important to ensure that once you have the hook, you can use it to pull the reader into your story.

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