The opening line of your novel is probably the most important line you'll write. (no pressure). You hear this all the time, and sadly it's true. How you start your novel determines how many readers (and agents) will keep reading it. Do you start with dialog, description, or internalization? Considering how few options you have for opening lines, it's amazing how hard they can be to write.
I've talked plenty of times about the hook aspect, but today, let's look at the three basic types of openings. Most advice will tell you never start with dialog or description, but there are books out there that do it and do it well. So why do they work when another book doesn't?
Because they do what a good opening line is supposed to do: make the reader want to read the second line. And that's what matters most.
Opening With Dialog
This means any line that has someone speaking out loud. They can be speaking to another person or to themselves, as long as the dialog is actually spoken.
The main reason folks advise against starting with dialog is that there's no context for the line. Readers have no idea who's speaking or who they're speaking to, so they feel ungrounded and confused.
"Is that you?"If you think about what a good opening line is supposed to do, this ought to work. It starts with something going on, poses a question, and hints at a mystery. But is there anything here that actually makes you care? Probably not, because it's so generic. This could be anyone anywhere, and there's no sense that anything is wrong or about to happen. Until you get more information, there's nothing to draw you into the story. So let's add some:
"Is that you?" Bob said, drawing his gun.This won't win any awards, but at least now we have some context. We know it's Bob, and that he's just heard something that bothers him, he suspects it could be someone he knows but isn't sure, and now he's arming himself. Is Bob a good guy or a bad guy? Is the person he hears a good guy or a bad guy? You may not know the specifics yet, but you have enough information to understand the basics of what's going on.
Let's look at an actual opening line that uses dialog well:
"Sam has it. Question is, how bad?" (Jerk, California, Jonathan Friesen)It's dialog, but it has context (they're talking about Sam), it poses a question (what does Sam have and how bad is it?), and it makes you curious about what's being said (he's got to be sick, but with what and, again, how bad?) It's also a great opening because I know this story is going to revolve around whatever Sam has. This is going to be important to the book. (and it is)
Tips on Opening With Dialog:
- Provide enough context to understand the dialog, even if some details are vague
- Make the dialog interesting even if you know nothing about what's going on yet
- Attach it to a person in some way so the reader feels grounded
- Make it matter to the overall story
Opening With Internalization
This means any line that shows the narrator musing or thinking about something.
Internalization gives readers that personal connection right away, and often sets the scene. It's probably the most common type of opening you'll find, because it's easy to fulfill the "good opening" requirements. It grounds the reader, it offers something going on, and it makes you curious. It also typically shows the voice of your narrator and something about that character.
Getting punched hard in the face is a singular experience. (Godless, Pete Hautman)I bought this book based on this line alone. There's a great sense of character here, and I know right away this person is dealing with getting punched in the face in some way. I don't know why yet, but I want to. It's that "a singular experience" that really sells this for me. The judgment of that, the voice, the attitude, makes me like this person.
Be wary of internalization that's let your POV wax philosophical for a long time. Just hearing someone think about a random topic doesn't hook any better than ungrounded dialog. If they're thinking or making an observation, let it be about something relevant to what's happening to them.
Tips on Opening With Internalization:
- Use the character's voice
- Offer an unusual or unexpected idea
- Have the musing be about something actively going on (as opposed to a general thought)
Opening With Description
This means any line that describes something, be it a tree, a bank robbery or a person.
Setting the scene makes sense, and is good advice, but starting with an inanimate object pushes back the time it takes to make a connection with your reader. There's no character (unless you're describing a person), no sense of something about to happen.
But that doesn't mean description can't work as a strong opening. Description that also tells the reader about the narrator, or surprises the reader in some way, can be very effective.
The sky was the color of cat vomit. (Uglies, Scott Westerfield)Right away the voice of the narrator comes across in this. Who compares the sky to cat vomit? It's unexpected and intriguing, even though it's someone describing the color of the sky. I don't know much about this story yet, but I can already tell the narrator doesn't think too highly of her world, and is probably a bit pessimistic.
Tips on Opening With Description:
- Use your POV's voice
- Offer something unexpected or unusual in how you describe
- Use the description to set the tone of the scene or novel
No matter which opening you choose, strive to make it as compelling as possible. Think about the various options and what each might gain you. If your narrator is witty or funny, internalization might work well. If the narrator is facing an unusual situation or person, dialog could be the best opening. Or if there's a scene or item that will surprise the reader and challenge their assumptions, description could be the way to go.
It all depends on what you want to accomplish with that opening.
(Here are seven deadly sins in a first chapter and how to fix them)
Do you consider which type of line works best for your story or do you write it on instinct? Which type of opening do you prefer? Does it change by genre?