Wednesday, May 23, 2018

How Much Really Needs to Be in Your Novel’s Opening Sentence?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Writers hear it all the time—your opening sentence has to be perfect. It will make or break your novel. It must contain [random writing technique or aspect that supports whatever point the article is trying to make]. If it doesn’t, your writing career is over.

For new writers, this can be terrifying. That’s a huge amount of pressure to put on a dozen or so words. Even for established writers it can be intimidating. They might wonder, “Is that why I keep getting rejected?” “I that why my e-book isn’t selling on Amazon?”

If you’ve worried about this, you can relax. Yes, the opening line of your novel is important, but the only thing it has to do is this:

Make someone want to read the second line.

That’s it.

There’s still pressure, but only the “needs to be good” kind, not the “must click all these required boxes” kind. Writing well is a pressure we face every time we sit down to write, so that’s nothing new, and much easier to handle. It’s part of the job of being a writer.

So…does your opening line make readers want to keep reading?

It does if it:

Offers an intriguing idea or concept

Make readers curious and they’ll keep reading. It can be the setting, the conflict, the character, the situation, or any number of things. Something about the opening line makes readers think, and they’d like to know more about whatever you just said.

Deborah Wiles’ Each Little Bird That Sings catches attention right away with, “I come from a family with a lot of dead people." You want to know what she means, and how that relates to whatever it is she’s going to say next.

The odd juxtaposition of violence and beauty in, “Ironically, since the attacks, the sunsets have been glorious” from Angelfall by Susan Ee makes you wonder what attacks and how they changed the sky.

(Here's more on writing the first line of your novel)

Provides a mystery, puzzle, or question the reader wants to know the answer to

Similar to the intriguing concept, this hook presents a question that makes readers want to know the answer to. It can be a literal question, or one that suggests a situation that’s clearly interesting and might be unusual.

My favorite example here: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” from EB White's Charlotte’s Web. It’s loaded with dread and you want to know what’s going on.

Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me makes you wonder with, “I’ve been locked up for 264 days.” Is this a criminal or a prisoner? Why are they locked up?

(Here’s more on asking the right story questions)

Introduces a compelling or fascinating character

Notice I didn’t say “likable” here. Compelling and fascinating draw readers in and makes them want to spend time with this person, even if it’s just to see what they do or what happens to them.

The opening line of CS Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader piques interest right away with, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” You want to know why, and assume it’s something bad. What did this boy do?

You also get a strong sense of the narrator with a line like, “The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World. I’m sixteen now, so you can imagine that’s left me with quite a few days of major suckage” from Going Bovine, by Libba Bray. Almost dying was the best day of his life? What has this person’s life be like?

(Here are six steps to creating unforgettable characters)

Has a great narrative voice

A great voice can compensate for almost anything in writing. There’s just something about the writer’s style that transcends the words and pulls you right into the story. A great voice paired with good writing is magic.

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness has a distinctive style with, “The first thing you find you when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.” I’m curious to hear more from the narrator and the dog.

You get a different tone in Feed by M.T. Anderson, when the narrator says, "We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck." Again, wonderful juxtaposition combines the rarity of going to the moon with the banality of “it sucking” and makes you curious how these things all exist together and how someone can not be impressed by space travel.

(Here’s more on finding your narrative voice)

Is funny or poignant

Make readers laugh or reflect and you’ve got them. It builds an instant connection, which makes them willing (and eager) to spend time in your story.

“There is nothing more humiliating than being topless in the backseat of your boyfriend’s car when someone decides to throw an egg at the windshield” from Shut Out by Kody Keplinger makes you remember your own humiliating experiences, and probably makes you happy yours weren’t this bad.

Pete Hautman’s Godless offers an equally funny (and unfortunate) chuckle with “Getting punched hard in the face is a singular experience.” You can tell right away that there’s more to this punch and that it had an effect on the narrator.

(Here are five lessons in writing humor)

Shocks or surprises you (in a good way)

Some lines are unexpected and catch you off guard, which makes you really want to know how the rest of the story will turn out. They promise unpredictability and a different way of looking at things that makes you confident this story won’t be the same old story you’ve read a hundred times before.

“The best time to cry is at night, when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help” from Monster by Walter Dean Myers is unexpected and creepy, but makes you want to know what’s going on all the same.

Andy Weir’s The Martian starts by dropping an F-bomb that pretty much sums up the situation nicely: “I’m pretty much fucked.” Instantly you want to know what went wrong.

Any combination of the above

If your opening line can hit a few of these at the same time, odds are you’ve found first-line gold. It’s a beautiful thing when it happens, such as “When you have to kill the same terrorist twice in one week, then there’s either something wrong with your skills or something wrong with your world” from Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry. It creates a character you want to know more about, and a world that promises something unusual. Especially when the next line is, “And there’s nothing wrong with my skills.”

Leigh Bardugo offers character, humor, and an intriguing idea and story question with “Joost had two problems: the moon and his mustache” in her Six of Crows. Why are these two things a problem and how could they possibly be connected?

(Here's more on writing the second line of your novel)

Opening lines are asked to carry a lot of literary weight, but you have the freedom to craft whatever frame is necessary to carry that weight. There’s no right or wrong answer, no set of rules, it just has to catch attention in some way and make readers want to read on.

And while so much importance is placed on opening lines, the reality is most readers will give the book at least the first paragraph before deciding if they don’t like it (books they like they keep reading). So if the opening line sets up the second line, and the entire opening paragraph is good, odds are you’re still doing your job as a writer and hooking your reading with your opening.

What are some of your favorite opening lines and why?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Marvelous guide, especially the rule of "Just get to the second line." This is going straight to my list of definitive writing tips.

    One other great relief about a first line is, consider it a place-holder. Whatever you think about your first line, there's a good chance your understanding of it and the story won't be as good as after you've been carried all the way to the end.

    1. Thanks! So true. A lot of writers rewrite the entire first scene after the first draft is done. I'm one of those writers who can't start the book until I get the first line right. It sets the whole tine for me. Sometimes I wish I was more the "placeholder opening line" type.