Written by A Guest Author

How to Write a Great Opening Line

By Ashley Taylor Clark

It’s impossible to overstate how important your opening line is. It’s your first opportunity to introduce readers to your story and motivate them to keep reading, meaning the pressure is on to make that first line stand out.

You’ve most likely been told to “hook” your readers — to get them asking the right questions and deciding that your story’s worth reading. They need to know that something interesting is happening to the protagonist, that there’s something interesting yet to be revealed, and that it’s all going to unfold in an interesting way. If your opening line doesn’t deliver that hook, it won’t be as effective and you’re more likely to lose readers’ attention.

There are several tricks to ensure you’re making the most of your all-important opening line, but they ultimately boil down to a few key points. Here are the best tips on how to write a great opening line.

1) Present the core theme/principle of the story.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice has one of the most recognizable opening lines in all of fiction. What makes it so iconic is that Austen begins not by introducing her main characters or immediate pressing stakes, but by stating the core assumption that drives the entire story forward. By identifying this principle in the first line, Austen helps readers understand a large facet of her characters’ motivations, as well as a prominent aspect of the society the story is set in.

To apply this to your own writing, consider the things your characters either know or accept to be true about the world they live in. Do any of them offer insight into your protagonists’ motivations or the story as a whole? By presenting these themes in your opening line, you can set the stage for readers and easily segue into a scene in which your characters are acting on or responding to this theme in some way.

2) Lay down some stakes.

“Dellaria Wells had misplaced her mother.” — C.M. Waggoner, The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry

This particular opening line is from the story’s first chapter, itself titled “Wherein Dellaria Hunts About for a Wayward Relation, Is Not the Recipient of Maternal Warmth, and Is Presented with an Opportunity for Gainful Employment.” These two things working in tandem create a story opening that presents interesting stakes and the promise of intrigue yet to come. In this first line, Waggoner offers an immediate conflict to be resolved as readers begin the story.

Stakes are an easy way to make it clear that something interesting (read: distressing) is happening to your protagonist. The stakes you create in your own opening line don’t have to be major — in fact, they don’t even have to be happening in the moment. The goal is to convey to readers that the protagonist must either take action or risk the problem growing worse. The drama that decision creates makes for an effective hook that will keep them reading well past the first scene.

3) Showcase your writing style.

“In the myriadic year of our Lord — the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the Kindly Prince of Death! — Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.” — Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth

There’s a lot of information to be gleaned from the first line of Gideon the Ninth. From this line alone, readers can ascertain that Gideon lives in a religious society overseen by a highly respected, immortal god with heavily implied connections to necromancy, she has only a few precious belongings that matter to her (including a sword and some nude magazines), and that she’s being held somewhere mysterious against her will. There’s great characterization and world building present, but the main appeal is the style itself. Muir’s word choice — including such gems as “myriadic,” “Undying,” and “escaped” — hints toward the dark, precise, and somewhat irreverent tone that’s present through the entire story.

That’s a lot to accomplish all at once, but it’s deceptively easy. Ideally, you’ll use your opening line to present crucial information about your story, whether that’s through characterization, world building, or tone. Your approach to each of these factors is a major part of your signature writing style, and can go a long way toward catching your readers’ attention. In other words, you can hook readers simply by showing off how uniquely suited you are to telling this particular story.

Opening lines don’t have to be difficult and stressful to write. Knowing what you’d like your first line to say about your story and communicating that with your unique personal style is a sure-fire way to start your novel off strong.


Bio: Having spent all her life in the rainy PNW, Ashley knows the value of spending time inside with a good book. She turned her passion for stories into a career as a freelance fiction editor, sharing her expertise and enthusiasm with her fellow writers.

 

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