Your potential reader enters the bookstore like a kid entering a candy store. So many wonderful, mouth-watering choices. Will it be a mystery? Women’s fiction or historical? Ooo! How about a romance?
Even if she has a favorite genre, she still faces as many choices as a visitor to the M&M Candies factory. So many authors. So many books. So little time.
This enthusiastic reader isn’t the only one awaiting her decision. If you’re a writer, you are, too, and you review sales figures with bated breath to see how often the decision went in your favor.
Many factors go into the choices every reader makes every time they look for a new read. Some of those factors are out of your control. Placement on bookstore shelves. Bookstore and publisher marketing. The number of new books vying with yours for shelf space in any given time or location. Market trends.
Most of the time, cover design and title are also out of your control, though you may have a little more influence.
There are things you have complete control over, though. Things that heavily influence potential readers. Things like writing the absolute best story possible every time. Consistency from the first word to the last. Lively and unique characters. Exceptional plotting. Compelling back cover blurbs.
Many times, the back cover blurb is what prompts a potential reader to open the book after attractive cover design and interesting title convinces her to take it off the shelf.
Then comes the moment of truth.
The first words she reads have two very important responsibilities.
- Tell the reader whether or not she wants to read more.
- Issue an unspoken promise about the rest of the novel.
Two very heavy responsibilities.
A bit of hard truth or tough love here. Not everyone is going to love your novel no matter how good your opening line is. It’s impossible to please everyone and efforts to do so generally end up pleasing no one.
Does that mean you can fudge on the opening line? Perish the thought! Write the best opening line you can. Pack it with zing. Make every word carry its own weight.
You will still not impress every reader who opens your book to the first page, but you have a much better chance of hooking readers with a powerful opening line than with a mediocre one.
The opening line of every novel that has ever been written and every novel that will ever be written says something about the novel. Promises are made to the reader. Promises like:
- This story will make you laugh.
- This lead is a quirky, fun loving person.
- This is a thoughtful story.
- You’ll be on the end of your seat beginning to end with this novel.
- There’s no predicting what you’ll encounter in this novel.
The promises are endless.
Whether you intend it to or not, the opening line of your novel will also make promises to prospective readers. Do the best you can to craft an opening sentence that evokes a promise AND is true to the novel. The promise of the opening sentence absolutely, positively MUST be fulfilled by the novel or you end up with a dissatisfied reader and, quite possibly, one who will not give you a second chance.
Crafting Opening Lines
Let’s look at a few opening lines. These are possible opening lines for a story I’m thinking about. The lead character is a con artist.
- A dowager house – old-fashioned and out of date, but still elegant – for a dowager widow.
- His mouth watered at the view.
- The sight was lip smacking good.
- The widow’s smile was a key in the lock of a vast treasure house.
- It was all his, fruit ripe for the picking.
- He felt like an ant at a picnic feast.
- Luxury and opulence everywhere he looked; and all his for the taking.
That was your reading assignment.
Here’s the test. (Leave your answers in the comment section.)
What does each of these sentences tell you about the character? What genre is the story? Can you make a guess about the voice of the story (serious, macabre, humorous)?
Now the most important question: Did you answer differently for each of the opening sentences or was your answer the same for all of them?
Many of these opening lines hint at a specific type of story with a specific type of lead and, in some instances, a distinct voice. The words you choose as the opening for your novel will do the same things. Choose those words carefully.
Question for You
How would you improve on your favorite opening line above?
What about your opening lines? If you’re having trouble finding the right words, leave your question in the comment section. Comments are moderated, so your question will not go live without your permission. If I answer your question in a future post, I’ll give you a free crit of the first chapter.