Why Our Opening Lines Shouldn’t Have To Kill (Our Careers)

I’m writing this to save my own life.  If my opening line doesn’t seize you by the wallet and pry the credit card from your increasingly skeptical hand, I could die.  Or worse, not sell you my book.

According to accepted wisdom (syndicated through the usual links, Likes and sponsored emails) your career will literally immolate itself in a sparking bonfire of molton e-readers and declining Amazon sales ranks unless the first bunch of words mashed together in your novel’s opening creates an immediate emotional investment through foreshadowing, suspense, pathos and wit.  And it shouldn’t be as long as that previous sentence or people will get bored.

Rather than a first, joyous burst of inspiration, the “opening sentence” has become a dreaded pitfall, its sharpened spikes of failure waiting patiently to impale novices and over-eager, under-terrified hobbyists.  Like kitchen bacteria and lack of fresh breath before it, the “opening sentence” has taken a threatening tone after being plucked from obscurity and villainized in marketing blog posts less entertaining than this one. Everywhere you look now, inferior “opening sentences” are lurking around corners, just behind swine-flu and China, ready to invade and destroy your creative future from the inside out.

Fortunately, I know how we can beat this career-ending curse – we ban and abolish opening lines in all novels, everywhere, from this day on.  Imagine the feeling of freedom as endorphins surge your brain after the copy+paste+del, the oxytocin flushing fear and building new neural pathways for optimism and hope.  Readers everywhere will settle into your story taken softly by the gentle, experienced hands of your other opening line – the one that wasn’t thrice folded upon itself, structured to titillate and deliver an unsuspected smack upside the head, pulverizing any resistance and enforcing admiration.

After all, one paragraph in, no one can likely remember exactly how a book opened, hopefully because they’re actually caught up in the narrative and not endlessly mooning about how clever the story will hopefully prove to be.  Think of your favorite film – what’s the opening shot?  Exactly.  You probably couldn’t recall if you tried, as it’s everything that comes after that counts.

Meanwhile, we’re ignoring what’s really threatening to wantonly dismember and spray flaming napalm on our futures as artists:

1) Lack Of Social Integration: reading your long-form text-only narrative is an uphill climb, and not one that burns calories either.  What’s the use of being on page fifty-two without the relevant social context of knowing where friends and attractive strangers have read up to?  Add “Notes” to explain which sock you like to pull on first before writing, or just add “Like” buttons to provide encouragement!

2) Make Your Book Multitask: Somehow include footnotes reminding readers to check the laundry, pay the electric bill or watch the trailer for your new release.  Add value while creating a “sticky” experience through your book / brand interface portal.

3) Complete & Proper Spelling Of Words: In today’s unforgivingly-paced society it’s difficult enough to get through an entire blog post, never mind deciphering such old-fashioned complexities such as “through” and “he laughed loudly” and “because”.  Lrn 2 abbrvte evrthng.

Here’s a perfect example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn begins with nothing less than a cynical marketing ploy – intended not only to inflict a sense of inadequacy in new readers but to raise sales for Tom Sawyer. Perhaps we should entirely reevaluate Twain; was he truly one of the most original voices in early American culture or just a proto-James Frey?

Arguably one of the greatest opening lines in modern memory, “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I don’t know.” isn’t even an opening line, it’s a passage.  “Mother died today” on its own is a snore.  It’s not until he glanced back at “Or maybe yesterday” that a legendary friendship and eventual rivalry was born. (For those unfamiliar, Camus and Sartre were like the Professor X and Magneto of the mid-20th century European philosophical scene, with Simone de Beauvoir occasionally dropping by to cameo à la Emma Frost.)

The opening line to All the King’s Men?  Just tedious driving directions – get a sat-nav, seriously.  Stop wasting my precious, precious time.  The opening to Atlas Shrugged may as well be, “What’s in my TiVo?” for all the excitement “Who is John Galt?” offers.  Why are you asking me, Rand?  Should I have watched your trailer first?  I need to express a torrent of thoughts on Tumblr about the locally-sourced non-gluten bran muffin in my other hand.  Moby Dick?  Please, call me bored, instead. What’s all this reliance on weird names I’ve never heard of?  Next.  Wuthering Heights?  Now we’re getting somewhere, I mean who hasn’t had troubles with their landlord?  Bronte is really throwing us smack into the haunting gothic drama, the atmosphere and isolation of Northern England in a time before Livejournal.

Manufacturing the most devastatingly perfect “opening line” is a losing gambit.  What we think of the greatest opens in fiction more than likely evolved organically, rather than through workshop-inspired structuring.  Many of the most beloved “opening lines” through history would hardly even be worth a retweet on a slow news day.  Save your tireless reworking for where it’s needed most – self-serving marketing articles like this one.

(this blog post originally appeared on stockholmbook.com)

  • Possibly the only sensible post I’ve read on this topic.

  • They were the best of lines, they were the worst of lines, it was the ague of isdom.

  • Um, this is awkward.

    This feels like it is your own personal take on the matter and clearly you are very passionate about it, however your article is devoid of any marketing context.

    The books you site were written long ago and broke out long ago. They could never compete in this market.

    It is parallel to book length. For the love of all that is holy you couldn’t sell a War & Peace length novel for your life right now. So it is with how modern books open.

    This is where the weight of the first line comes in.

    Especially in the digital market you may only have THAT ONE line to hook a reader.

    This isn’t a vague personal preference, this is a quantifiable factor in the sale of your book.

    The buying public no longer peruse a book store, sit down with a book, read a chapter or two before purchase.

    The modern book buyer is on line, harried, stressed and in a big fat hurry. They skim. They close windows in a click of a mouse. They wander away to pull the kid out of the oven before hitting the “1-Click” button.

    The entire make up and layout of your front matter (which includes your first few pages) can determine if you capture a sale or not.

    I appreciate your flare and passion at not wanting your first line to matter so much, however proposing this as a strategy to self-published authors whose sales depend on that first line feels, well… #awkward

    • Personally, I find this comment sort of awkward. The purpose of writing isn’t just to “compete in this market,” it’s self-expression. Though it’s of course hard to sell a War & Peace today, that shouldn’t dissuade anyone from having that ambition.

      I feel sort of alone in this, as the vibe around self-publishing these days is sell, sell, sell – but it should also be about the craft of writing, and that’s what this post is about.

      • Doris Chan

        I agree with your comments.

        Great works may not be best sellers. An impressive starting line will always be inviting, but whether interest can be sustained depends on what comes after.

    • To Carolyn McCray: It’s possible that the books he cites (not sites) might not find a publisher today, but they’re still being read. As for “the modern book buyer,” this is a very typical over-generalization. Not every reader is in a hurry, or too impatient to allow the author at least a few paragraphs to establish the first scene. According to your rather narrow point of view, the samples that authors put up on sites like Smashwords, sometimes several chapters, are simply a waste of space because no one will bother to read them. Believe it or not, there are readers who enjoy immersing themselves in well-written books that don’t cater to some abstract concept of what the market wants. May I quote you back to you? “This feels like it is your own personal take on the matter.” Yours is just one point of view, among many. It’s also one that a lot of people would disagree with.

      • I really agree with your comment, Catana. I think it is very easy to turn the market into this generic-looking consumer, but the entire part, but if you as an aspiring author treat it this way, you end up limiting your offering. E-books and the opening up of the publishing industry is transforming the reach of the average author, and giving access to a diverse (and interesting!) type of customer.

        And I totally disagree on Carolyn’s comment about book length. Give me something I can read in two hours, and I will think twice of purchasing it. Give me a 1000 page fantasy novel… ah bliss…

        • In general, I agree about book length, Ken. Quick, easy reads are rarely worth my time or money. Oddly enough, I read this, today, from Mark Coker of Smashwords: “Ebook buyers prefer full length. Smashwords author Gene Grossman emailed me a word count analysis of the top 20 Smashwords ebook performers at Barnes & Noble from my December 27 blog post and found they averaged about 105,000 words each.”

          I want books I can sink into, not rush through. There are many markets for books, not just one. I don’t read best sellers, celebrity ghost-written ephemera or trivial boredom-chasers. Neither do I write for that kind of market.

          • Yes, there does seem to be a deluge of celebrity ‘written’ novels on the bestseller list. I would hope that this is a trend toward more people taking up reading (if their favourite celebrity convinces them to open a book for the first time, that’s a really good thing in my eye). And hopefully this is not an indication of our reading levels on the decline, ha ha.

            • Ken, I doubt that novels “written” by celebrities will help unknown authors gain the attention they deserve. People buy books “written” by celebrities for the same reason they buy those magazines stacked at the grocery store check-out counter. They want to connect themselves to the gods and goddesses who count most in their lives: celebrities. James Franco’s first novel might be the greatest artistic achievement of our times — and actually written by the author. It might also be ghost-written trash. It won’t matter. It will sell. Will those who buy it actually read it? Why would they wish to waste their time doing that?

              • Hi Ron, I think you misunderstand me. By no means am I suggesting that celebrity authors are helping indie-authors break into the world of publishing (if anything, I think they could be eating into valuable real estate on the best-seller lists that could be better used for more meaningful material). I believe that the demographic that buys the magazines from the grocery store is probably strongly tied to the demographic that supports the deluge of celebrity-inspired novels – the medium has just changed. However, I still stand by my point – more people reading in my eyes is good. Look at the phenomenon that was Harry Potter, creating a young generation of readers that would have been wasted playing nintendo. Of course, there is a difference between the quality of the Harry Potter series and an autobiography of Snooki from the Jersey Shore 😉 All I am saying is more readers is good, and thankfully, I will not be competing with Snooki for a target audience.

                • Ken, I agree with you 100%. The Harry Potter thing was undoubtedly good for all writers and readers. And like you, I won’t be competing with Snooki.

  • Henry, as long as I’m alive, you won’t be alone in the opinions you included in your comment. Neither will Kian and Catana. And thank you, Eric, for your gem. The “ague of isdom” says it all!

  • Here, here to Catana’s comment. Give me a well-written book that has a heart and soul because its writer took the time and the effort and the energy to instill it there.