How to Perfect the Opening Line of Your Novel
There are many hurdles that come with writing a novel.
From planning your ideas to actually getting them on the page, it’s no secret that becoming a published author requires you to overcome a lot. However, of everything novelists have to face, writing their story’s opening line is often the thing they obsess about the most.
Opening lines define our stories in so many ways, setting the stage for everything to come. Yet, they don’t have to be as confounding as they seem—all it takes is knowing the traits of a strong opening, and then applying those to your own novel!
This article is based on one of the topics covered in my book, The Ten Day Edit.
Not only will this book help you perfect your opening line, but it’ll also walk you through everything from full-blown rewrites to naming your novel. If you enjoy this post, I hope you’ll consider checking it out! 🙂
The Power of First Impressions
While it is possible your novel already has an opening line you’re happy with, I find that this is one of those sticking points almost all writers obsess over, even well into the editing process.
After all, opening lines carry a lot of weight, both because of popular perception but also because they act as your reader’s first glimpse into your story. You need to set the scene, grab their attention, and prove why your novel is worth reading—all in a sentence or two.
So… how exactly do you do that?
Well, for starters, this isn’t something you should worry about until you’re well into the editing process. There’s no point in writing the perfect opening line only to realize you need to start your story two scenes earlier or five later, ultimately scrapping all of your hard work.
That would be a huge waste of effort, and depressing too!
Instead, to write a compelling opening for your novel, you need a complete understanding of your story. This means the opening line should be one of the last things you tackle in the editing process, not only so you know your novel’s final form, but also so you won’t obsess over it while your story is still in flux.
However, if your story is complete and you’ve finished any significant rewrites for the foreseeable future, then you’re ready to perfect your novel’s opening—and to start that process, you need to know what makes a good opening line.
What Makes a Good Opening Line?
First and foremost, your opening line’s job is to lead your reader into your story’s world by capturing a specific image or sensation. This will set the tone for the entire rest of your novel, laying the groundwork you’ll build on throughout your story. Not only that, but it should also fulfill a few other things as well:
All in all, your opening line should:
- Give your reader a distinct image or feeling to latch on to.
- Set the tone for your novel as a whole.
- Offer something of interest to get readers hooked.
- Make a promise as to what your novel will be about.
For example, here’s the opening line from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
Though this is technically an opening paragraph rather than an opening line, it serves the same purpose. This opening encapsulates the whimsical, fantastical tone of the book, while also giving readers their first mental image of this story’s world—comfy chairs, fireplaces, and soft rugs, all communicated through the word “comfort.”
In contrast, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King presents a much darker picture:
“Pippin looked out from the shelter of Gandalf’s cloak. He wondered if he was awake or still sleeping, still in the swift-moving dream in which he had been wrapped so long since the great ride began. The dark world was rushing by and the wind sang loudly in his ears. He could see nothing but the wheeling stars, and away to his right vast shadows against the sky where the mountains of the South marched past. Sleepily he tried to reckon the times and stages of their journey, but his memory was drowsy and uncertain.”
This opening paragraph feels dark and stormy, with frightening shadows lingering around every corner. The description of Pippin’s memory as “drowsy and uncertain” lends everything a sense of anxiety as well—what a perfect way to prepare the reader for all the trials to come in this final book of Tolkien’s trilogy!
When creating your novel’s opening line, you want to strive to capture this same strong mental image, while also carefully setting up the tone of the story to come.
How to Perfect Your Novel’s Opening Line
Capture Your Tone:
To write your novel’s opening line, you first need to understand exactly what tone you’re trying to set for your readers – and perhaps the easiest way to do that is with some targeted brainstorming.
So, pull out a pen and some scratch paper.
Start by listing four to five words that sum up your story’s tone and mood. Think carefully about what feelings, emotions, experiences, and sensations best capture the story you’re trying to tell, not worrying about whether those perfectly match the opening scene of your novel—we’ll deal with that in a moment.
For instance, based on our Tolkien examples, here are two different lists that could represent The Hobbit and Return of the King:
The Hobbit: comforting, warm, beige, soft, summery
Return of the King: dark, stone, cold, metal, blurry
As you can see, these words are all rather abstract, but they still act as a good representation of both of these stories. The Hobbit is childlike and feels like a bedtime story, while Return of the King is the darkest moment for these characters. However, these abstract terms are only useful for setting the tone of your novel’s opening. You’ll also need some images to help give your opening a foundation to stand on.
Pick an Image:
Think carefully about the first image you want your readers to see—this will be the mental image that defines your story.
Fortunately, there isn’t much restricting you here!
This mental image could be a setting, object, event, or even a person. Really, anything your readers can imagine that will best represent the story you’re doing to tell them.
You may already have a clear idea of how your novel starts, so picking this image won’t be too difficult for you, and will allow you to shape the abstract words you picked earlier to your specific opening scene. However, if you find yourself struggling to choose something, here’s a good test—what is the most unique or intriguing thing about your novel’s opening scene that you can share with your reader?
You want this to be something readers can develop an emotional connection to, even if it isn’t a specific, physical image. In The Hobbit, the phrase “and that means comfort” gives us an emotional link to our own perception of comfort, letting us fill in the gaps with feelings of warm fireplaces and safety. This comforting sensation deeply ties into the childlike wonder of this book, even though Tolkien leaves a lot of the details up to us as the reader.
The same flexibility applies to your own novel, so get creative here. 🙂
Once you’ve decided on your images, list one or two you want your readers to imagine next to the descriptive words you wrote down earlier. Together, these will serve as the foundation of your novel’s opening.
Don’t Overthink It:
Of course, as you work on your opening line, you may feel pressured to turn it into some kind of epic literary masterpiece, to which I say—don’t.
There’s really no need to get fancy with your novel’s opening because, in reality, very few authors can pull off the kind of highbrow literary style seen in the classics—it simply won’t match the more grounded genre fiction many of us write.
This means there’s no need to make sweeping statements about the nature of humanity or the purpose of life, unless this truly captures the essence of your story. Instead, the most important thing is genuinely representing your novel, and making a promise to your reader you know you can keep.
Focus on Your Reader:
As I’ve hinted at multiple times throughout this article, there is one thing you should have in mind when writing your opening line above all else:
You see, your opening line is all about grabbing your reader’s attention, but it’s also about jumpstarting their emotional connection to your story. You need to focus on giving them an image and a feeling they can latch on to, one that encapsulates the adventure you’re preparing to take them on.
As you workshop the images and feelings you wrote down previously, pause and consider what you’re writing from your reader’s perspective:
- What will this story be about?
- What kind of world am I being introduced to?
- Does this story seem like one I’ll enjoy?
- Is there anything interesting or compelling being offered here?
Better yet, try to sum these up in a few impactful sentences. These are your promise to your reader, telling them, “here is what I’m about to give you.” So long as you keep this promise in mind and look at your opening from your reader’s point of view, you’ll be well on your way to writing the perfect opening for your novel.
Finally, if all else fails, try to surprise your reader.
While many authors fall into the trap of writing a Hook with no relation to their core story, all in the name of “surprising the reader,” there are ways to inject some intrigue while still staying true to your novel. Say something that will confuse or excite your readers, so long as it remains relevant to your core story.
For instance, here is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s famous opening to One Hundred Years of Solitude:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
With so many strong mental images to latch on to in this opening line—from firing squads to discovering ice—it’s easy to see why this story sucks you in from the very start! However, everything you read here is also true to the nature of this story, making it even more compelling and memorable in the long run.
It’s All About Your Readers
At the end of the day, when writing your novel’s opening line, your readers are the most important thing for you to consider. Your goal here is to shape their first experience with your story, giving them something interesting, but also genuine.
Fortunately, there are a billion and one ways to do this, and your opening line doesn’t have to be quite as quotable as “Call me Ishmael” to be effective!
Instead, just remember:
- Capture a feeling to set the tone.
- Give your readers an image to latch on to.
- Establish an emotional connection.
- Be true to your story as a whole.
The rest is simply a matter of time and patience. While writing your novel’s opening line isn’t easy, it also isn’t impossible. By following the five tips above, you can create a strong, compelling opening line without the stress and pressure that many writers put themselves through!