Take the time to craft a killer opening line – it will pay off.
If you can’t find a killer one, make sure it is solid and interesting. Start with action, dialogue, or a single line of thought. In every case, it must be compelling.
Have you ever strolled through a carnival where pitchmen and women call out to you from all sides, trying to engage your attention in their games or rides.
They use a proven formula for their pitches, and you can use the same for your first sentence. It makes a surprising claim and promises a big result.
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The Pitch-Style Opening Sentence
- Foreshadow. Imply that a change is coming.
- Raise questions in the reader’s mind. Your first few sentences should cause the reader to ask questions. What is going on here? How did he get into that situation?
- Start in the middle of things. Jump into the action. Assume the reader knows the character and what the narrator is talking about.
- Add a hint of spice. Whet the readers’ appetites by adding something intriguing, an oddity, danger or tension.
- Provide context. Hint at the setting and/or the situation so the readers knows what they are dealing with.
- Get the reader to identify with the character and her predicament ASAP. Give the reader an interesting character – in a pickle, and make sure the stakes are high enough that the reader will feel her pain.
1. Build momentum
Opening lines should possess most of the individual craft elements that make up the story as a whole. It should have a distinctive voice, a point of view, a rudimentary plot and some hint of characterization. By the end of the first paragraph, we should also know the setting and conflict, unless there is a particular reason to withhold this information.
There is no need to elaborate on complex openings. Simplicity will suffice.
2. Resist the urge to start narrative too early
Do not be tempted to begin your narrative before the action actually starts, such as when a character just wakes up. If the protagonist’s early-morning rituals are essential to the story line, or merely entertaining, they can always be included in backstory or flashbacks—or later, when he wakes up for a second time.
3. Small hooks catch more fish than big ones
Many writers are taught that the more unusual or extreme their opening line, the more likely they are to “hook” the reader. Large hooks can disappoint readers if the subsequent narrative doesn’t measure up. If you begin writing at the most dramatic or tense moment in your story, you have nowhere to go but downhill. Similarly, if your hook is extremely strange or misleading, you might have trouble living up to its odd expectations. An old fishing trick is to use the smallest hook possible to make a catch—then to pull like crazy in the opposite direction.
4. Open at a distance and close in – or vice versa
In modern cinema, films commonly begin with the camera focused close up on an object, then draw back, often creating an deceiving effect. This technique rarely works in prose. Most readers prefer to be “grounded” in context then to focus in. Open your story accordingly.
5. Avoid getting ahead of your reader
One of the easiest pitfalls is to begin with an opening line that is confusing upon first reading, but makes perfect sense once the reader learns additional information. The problem being, few readers, if confused, will ever make it that far. That technique is rarely a highly rewarding tool, but the opening should make sense on both levels—with and without the knowledge that the reader will later acquire.
6. Start with a mystery
Presenting your readers with a puzzle can be highly effective—particularly if the character is also puzzled. This has the effect of making the reader and character partners in crime. An unanswered question can even encompass an entire novel. David Copperfield said, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
7. Keep talk to a minimum
Early dialogue is a maelstrom in which it’s easy to lose the reader. One possible way around this is to begin with a single line of dialogue, then to draw back and offer additional context before proceeding with the rest of the conversation— closing up early, then providing a panorama, can make it intriguing.
8. When in doubt, test several options
Writers are often advised to make a short list of titles and try them out on friends and family. Try doing the same with opening sentences. An opening line, like a title, sometimes seems truly perfect—until you come up with several even better choices.
9. Revisit the beginning once you reach the end
Sometimes a story evolves significantly during the writing process and an opening line, no matter how brilliant, no longer applies. The only way to know this is to revisit the opening sentence, like the title, once the final draft of the story is complete.
Needless to say, a brilliant opening line cannot salvage a story that lacks other merits, nor will your story be accepted for publication based on the opening alone. But a dazzling opening line can help define a piece – the door opener with a publishing agency.
“Linda has published sixteen books. She blogs about the publishing world, posts useful tips on the challenges a writer faces, including marketing and promoting your work, how to build your online platform, how to get reviews and how to self-publish.”