An opening line is critical to a novel. It sets the tone for the entire story. The rumor is–confirmed at the last writer’s
conference I attended–many agents won’t read past the first line if it doesn’t grab them. They’re talking about a query letter, but it’s true of readers, too. If you don’t set a tantalizing stage or introduce intriguing characters with the first sentence of your novel, you lose the audience.
This is especially true with all the ‘free looks’ we give potential readers. Amazon has ‘look inside’. Scribd allows you to post the first chapter (well, as much as you want; most authors stop after one chapter). I’ve had over 3000 readers peak inside my excerpt of To Hunt a Sub which is my unpublished, uncompleted thriller. I posted it to see if there was interest and got my answer.
Here’s a list shared with me by James Hitt, author of Carny: A Novel in Stories, from Aberdeen Press:
- Call me Ishmael (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
- You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. (Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)
- It was a dark and stormy night (Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford)
- If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth (JD Salinger The Catcher in the Rye)
- I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. (Edith Wharton Ethan Frome)
- It was a pleasure to burn (Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451)
- I have never begun a novel with more misgiving (W. Somerset Maugham The Razor’s Edge)
- In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. (F. Scott Fitzgerald Great Gatsby)
- The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there (LP Hartley The Go-Between)
- When I finally caught up with Abraham Traherne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon (James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss)
Each of these grabs my attention, makes it easy to commit to a few more sentences. I want to know why ‘it was a pleasure to burn’ or about that character’s ‘lousy childhood’. That gives the author a bit more time to engage me, and if they’re good author’s, they’ll get me reading a few more sentences, and paragraphs and chapters. I’ll be hooked. If it’s a thriller, I’ll read all night. If it’s literary fiction, I’ll take a break to ponder the weighty thoughts shared on the pages.
It all starts with a great opening line.
Do you have any?