6 Ways to Build Better Opening Lines of Novels and How They Get You Reading

I remain working on my openings until I think, “Okay, that would draw me in if I were picking up this book for the first time.” Of course, it’s always hard to gauge your own writing so I usually bounce my openings off of my husband, Bob. He will either say, “Meh,” or “Nice.” Nice wins.

In fact, Bob was key in developing the first line of a story I currently have in front of an agent. The beginning, the prologue now goes like this:

If you asked— “Who are you, Meg Nightly?” Her feet will dart in a pace so fast away from you that in a start, you’ll bolt off running after her to hear the answer.

Where the original first lines of the story went like this:

A PERSON MIGHT WONDER THE PARTICULARS of how a precocious girl got lost in the wild wood. But, until a person walks a single step into the wood, all the wondering shall get lost with the girl.

Instead, I wanted both of these thematic phrases to stand out even further so I made one more of an inscription and the others part of the prologue. I felt the beginning few lines needed  more of a spotlight than I had them originally. Plus, these lines worked for mood and metaphor rather than story. These two phrases together now look like this: 

WAY OF THE WILD WOOD

A PERSON MIGHT WONDER THE PARTICULARS of how a precocious girl got lost in the wild wood but, until a person walks a single step into the wood, all the wondering shall get lost with the girl.

PROLOGUE

If you asked— “Who are you, Meg Nightly?” Her feet will dart in a pace so fast away from you that in a start, you’ll bolt off running after her to hear the answer.

My reasons for changing the first part of this story were this:

  • The inscription isn’t actually part of the story but used more of a thematic visual for the reader. Much like a quote before a chapter beginning, it eludes to what might happen in the story but is definitely not part of the story.
  • And the prologue speaks to a scene that may well have happened in the story but, if you were to search for this phrase within the story, you wouldn’t find it.

So, why include them at all? Indeed. Good question. Well, for one, they add the mood and interest I spoke of before and, hopefully, they hook the reader a little bit.

Now, here’s the actual beginning line of this novel:

CHAPTER ONE

Without a mother, a child will lose her way.

In my opinion, the inscription and the prologue build the first line even further.

Why dwell on the opening of your story? Because the opening will be the very first taste a reader has of your writing–whether that reader is a consumer, an agent or a publisher. You definitely need to give each type of reader a goodly amount of credit for their reading appetite.

So, what are 6 ways to build better opening lines of novels and how will they get you reading? Here are six ideas for building a palpable opener:

1. Read other popular books in your genre and see how the authors of these books have written their opening lines.

2. Concentrate on the parts of the first opening sentence. What is its intention and how will it function within the rest of the story?

3. How does the opening sentence point to characterization?

4. What aspect of scene does this opening sentence make important?

5. What inherent conflict is embedded in the opening sentence?

6. How is conflict embedded in this opening sentence?

Now, let’s take apart the above opening lines and see how they work.

A PERSON MIGHT WONDER THE PARTICULARS of how a precocious girl got lost in the wild wood but, until a person walks a single step into the wood, all the wondering shall get lost with the girl.
PROLOGUE
If you asked— “Who are you, Meg Nightly?” Her feet will dart in a pace so fast away from you that in a start, you’ll bolt off running after her to hear the answer.
CHAPTER ONE
Without a mother, a child will lose her way.

The beginning inscription means to create questions in the readers mind. It means to elicit some emotional reaction whether that is terror, worry, horror, or a sense of anger, romance or jealousy. Given that, the above inscription suggests a child getting lost in the woods. How might a reader, “a person,” react to this scenario? What would you do if a child you knew got lost? Would you worry? Most definitely. Would you be involved in the search for the child? Maybe. And, if not, you would definitely be on call about the progress of the search. So, does this opening inscription elicit in you the proper response? That’s up for each reader to say.

Next, we have the prologue sentence which starts by suggesting to the reader a question about the character–Meg Nightly–who will soon appear in this story about her. Does the prologue work? Maybe this next question will better help you answer: Do you care who Meg Nightly is right now given that someone is going to get lost in the woods? And, that this someone is most likely Meg Nightly? The beginning lines of the prologue also suggest youthful action by the girl who darts away from the reader and anyone else who might enter the scene. Do we care about her? Again, that’s up to the reader to say, however, if you’ll notice, this line builds on the inscription.

Finally, we have the actual opening line of the novel: Without a mother, a child will lose her way. What might the reader think now? Might the reader wonder what happened to Meg’s mother? Why is Meg alone now, and, is she alone? Where’s the father? And, possibly, what happens so badly that if there is a father, why did Meg feel the need to leave?

My intention for this beginning was to ignite an emotional response filled with questions about what might possibly happen within the body of this story. I’m putting my work on the chopping block here. Does it work for you?

I like to read beginning sentences of other authors as practice when I begin a new novel. For one, it helps pinpoint what might be important to character goals, characterization, conflict and setting, and character. I can’t state this enough. Because if a reader is not tied emotionally to your character, why will they care about the character’s story?

Here are a few great beginnings to some novels I have in my library:

One Last Time by Kinsey Grafton:

Inscription:

The last time isn’t always the end.

Chapter One beginning: SHIVERING IN the cool night air Stacy Manners lifted her head when light flickered through the wooden walls of her prison.

Doublesight by Terry Persun:

Chapter One beginning: IT APPEARED TO BE A PERFECT MORNING.

Nosebleed by Rosanne Dingli

Chapter One beginning: Marie’s awkwardness hung about her.

The Fuhrer’s Daughter by Joshua Graham and Jack Patterson

Inscription 1: “Who controls the past controls the future.” —George Orwell, 1984 “History is written by the victors.” —Winston Churchill

Inscription 2: In 1944, Adolf Hitler dispatched a pair of Horten H.XVIIIs to drop atomic bombs on Manhattan and Chicago. The unconditional surrender of the majority of the United States followed, essentially bringing the war to an abrupt end.

Prologue: Himmlerstadt 1997 ANNE SCUFFLED FORWARD, engulfed by the mass of humanity around her and the knowledge that soon she would be dead.

Chapter One beginning: New Berlin 2015 A THUNDERCLAP RATTLED the windows and jolted Grace awake.

The Forgotten Roses by Deborah Doucette

Inscription: Truths and roses have thorns about them. Henry David Thoreau

Chapter One beginning: “Twisted.” That is the word Rebecca’s mother, Eva, will use to describe the shoes.

Do these opening lines work? I tend to think they do. One thing about these great openings is that they made me want to read the rest of the story. And I wasn’t sorry.

I write books. You can find them all within the pages of my website. And, when you read them, let me know if the opening lines worked for you! ~Susan.

SUSAN ON AMAZON.COM

 

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