Wednesday, August 1, 2012

40. Finding a great opening line

Last week we talked about WHERE to begin a novel. Now let’s take a look at HOW.

In the beginning of your novel ideally you should introduce your main character, illustrate his or her central problem, and do so in a way that grips potential readers.

Here’s a great first line from the Kafka classic Metamorphosis that does all those things at once:


As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

This line also establishes the mood of the story—claustrophobic, dreamlike, and horrifying.

Here is a more mundane example from my young adult novel Going to See Grassy Ella. I had determined that my actual story begins when Peej and Annie, the heroines, decide to run off to New York City so Peej, who has cancer, can visit a faith healer. The first chapter shows them making that decision, along with the necessary background information. To draw the reader in, I decided to make an immediate reference to the most exciting (and comic) part of the novel:

This is the true story of how my sister and I got kidnaped and broke up an international drug ring,” Annie tells us, adding, as a segue: “But it didn’t start out like that.

Many novels begin with a  provocative sentence that raises immediate questions. I began Pandora’s Genes: He knew they had been expecting him. This raises the questions, “Who is HE?” “Who are THEY?” “WHY are they expecting him?”

Take a look at the classic opening to Catch-22:

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

This opening accomplishes quite a lot: it introduces the main character, sets up a number of questions readers want answered, and establishes the comic voice that Joseph Heller uses throughout the novel.

Here are more ideas to keep in mind for the beginning of your novel:

Know your genre. Mysteries, romances, and sci-fi each have their own conventions. The opening of a mystery often focuses on a crime; romances usually begin by introducing the lovers; and science fiction often throws the reader into the midst of a strange and provocative world.  From George Orwell’s 1984:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.

Ask yourself, would *I* want to keep reading? If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track.

Don’t start with a prologue, except possibly for a sequel in a series. Readers tend to skip prologues—because they are looking for the action.

Use flashbacks rarely and sparingly, if at all. Again, readers will often skip them. I once read a student novel that started a flashback on the first page that went on for four chapters. By the time the story snapped back to the present, I was completely lost.

Don’t start out with a character sketch. That was how authors often began their novels in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but today’s readers don’t have the patience for it. Instead, drop in information as needed throughout the book, and SHOW us who your character is through her actions and words.


  1. I can't think of any specific opening lines offhand, but it seems like Elmore Leonard is a master of the opening punch. I'm always drawn in.

    1. It's an art. For most of us it's a struggle. It probably is for him too, but he makes it look easy.

  2. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Mother died today. Yep, they work all right. Maybe if I wake up in the night with a good line, I will write a novel from it. LOL.