While I don’t always write a great opening line, I do hear a lot of praise about most of them. I’m not entirely sure if my process will work for anyone else, but since great openings are key to book sales, I’m going to share it with you today.
There are 3 key essentials to creating great openings that hook your reader and generate sales.
- Killer first lines.
- Active first paragraph
- Compelling characterization
I will break these down individually to help you understand.
Killer First Lines
I mentioned how watching television helps me create scenes and great killer opening lines. I tend to write a lot of dark fiction, so most of my stories start with an action. Here are a few examples:
“A pop startled the children into silence. Shelby Firth crumbled to the ground, blood pooling beneath her.”
“There are fairies in my garden; they are trying to kill my mother.”
“I killed my darling.”
“With an IV pole near and nowhere to go, Gloria lay in her hospital bed and stared at the white ceiling.”
All four of these examples open the story with a bang. You’re instantly invested in the gunshot that scared the children, who Shelby Firth is, and why she was shot, and it’s only 17 words into the story. You want to know why the fairies are killing the mother, or why I killed my darling. You want to know why Gloria is in the hospital. You’re hooked. So, how did I do it?
When I begin a story, I usually open with a scene, and start straight with the action. I want to offer a problem, a mystery, the main event immediately. I will play with my lines until I get them just right, taking out unnecessary words and keeping things focused on that very moment.
What’s more exciting? A TV show that starts with backstory or one that starts with action?
Sometimes, I don’t start with action because a setting is more relevant to a story. I don’t beat around the bush. I use the least amount of words possible to set up the situation. Like this:
“The world was so quiet, the soft padding of field mice echoed as they scampered through the grass.”
Why is the world so quiet? What’s going on that field mice footfalls could echo?
“You could only hear it when the wind blows, which was often.”
Hear what? Plus this sounds kind of creepy, so I’m gearing up for a ghost story.
Both of these have an interesting aspect about them. They aren’t just telling you something, they show you there is something–a too quiet world, a ghostly sound.
Show vs tell is incredibly important in the beginning of your stories. Those “dark and stormy night” lines of classic literature are no longer acceptable. Today’s readers need to be hooked. This is a visual age, and you need to create the visuals in their imaginations.
The trick is to find the right opening line that tells the reader what they can expect from your story without giving it all away.
Active first paragraph
The best way to teach you this is by showing you exactly what I mean.
“A pop startled the children into silence. Shelby Firth crumbled to the ground, blood pooling underneath her. A second child screamed in rhythm with another pop, followed by a short staccato peppering the air as one by one all the children on the neighborhood playground fell to the ground, scarlet staining the soil beneath them. A few more pops sprinkled the air, sending small bits of flesh flying in a macabre dance with the wind, which died out as suddenly as the gunshots. Anguished cries replaced the sounds of childhood laughter as frantic parents found their young ones covered in blood and open wounds as their lifeless eyes stared up at them. A small, weak cry trembled from the farthest end of the playground, and parents rushed to the sound, hope propelling them forward. “
The idea was to make you “see” this in your head like a movie playing. You can hear the gunshots and see the bodies falling, a ground covered in red. I often close my eyes to visualize and use my senses to get a grasp of the scene. I try to look for something insignificant that adds essential flavor or a small touch of intrigue to the plot and weave it into the paragraph. By all respects, this is a highly active paragraph. It opens with action, so it’s easier to throw the line and reel them in.
What if you can’t start your story this way? You can still write an active first paragraph even if it’s not action filled. Just focus on the moment, the scene, what you want the reader to know right from the first word.
You want to make your readers establish a connection with your character as soon as possible. Don’t dirty up the opening paragraphs with lots of description. Keep it simple, again using senses, emotions, action, and dialogue to set up an adventure your readers will never forget.
I’m going to end this post with the complete first page of the story I’ve been using in the examples above, Say Say Oh Playmate, a current WIP.
A pop startled the children into silence. Shelby Firth crumbled to the ground, blood pooling underneath her. A second child screamed in rhythm with another pop, followed by a short staccato peppering the air as one by one all the children on the neighborhood playground fell to the ground, scarlet staining the soil beneath them. A few more pops sprinkled the air, sending small bits of flesh flying in a macabre dance with the wind, which died out as suddenly as the gunshots. Anguished cries replaced the sounds of childhood laughter as frantic parents found their young ones covered in blood and open wounds as their lifeless eyes stared up at them. A small, weak cry trembled from the farthest end of the playground, and parents rushed to the sound, hope propelling them forward.
“I opened my eyes to dozens of faces staring down at me. Some had ugly looks, while others held tears that still dropped from their chins. The only face that mattered to me, the only face I wanted, I couldn’t find. I was the only one to survive that day, and my mother wasn’t there.” Mere said. She touched a tissue delicately to her eye, careful not to smudge her makeup.
Her therapist, Della Thompson, sat across from her and stared. Della rarely said much while Mere talked, and today was no exception, despite the gruesomeness of the discussion. She also mastered the art of no expression, as her face gave away no details to her own feelings of what she heard. Her lips moved after a moment, as if she waited to make sure Mere had finished.
“Wow. I remember my mother reading that story to me when I was a teenager. I never realized it was true. Did you ever find out why your mom wasn’t there?”
Mere dropped her head, studied her fingers for a moment. “Well, she died when I was little. I just can’t ever remember if it was before or after this.”
Della nodded. “It is hard to lose a parent when you are young. Perhaps you missed her because she wasn’t there, and it would make sense that she would be the first person you wanted to see.”
“My next door neighbor went to the hospital with me and stayed until someone came. My daddy brought my grandma with him, and the neighbor left when he came. It was really nice of her, since her daughter was my best friend and the first to fall. She stayed with me a lot after that, which got weird sometimes. She’d stare behind me like she saw a ghost standing there, then send me home without explanation. When she passed away a couple of years later, people said she died of heartbreak.”
Admit it, you’re hooked. The opening line got your attention, the first paragraph held it, and by the end of the page, you’re already invested in both Della and Mere. This is exactly what you should aim for every time you start a new story.What's more exciting? A TV show that starts with backstory or one that starts with action? #amwriting #openinglines #writingadvice Click To Tweet
What are some of your best openings? Share your lines in the comments below.