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

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)

  • http://writingcycle.wordpress.com Catana

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

  • http://www.pacificamilitary.com Eric Hammel

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

  • http://www.indiebookcollective.com Carolyn McCray

    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

    • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/members/henry-baum/ Henry Baum

      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.

    • http://writingcycle.wordpress.com Catana

      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.

      • http://www.kenebaker.com Ken E Baker

        I really agree with your comment, Catana. I think it is very easy to turn the market into this -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…

        • http://writingcycle.wordpress.com Catana

          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.

          • http://www.kenebaker.com Ken E Baker

            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.

            • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/members/ronfritsch/ Ron Fritsch

              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?

              • http://www.kenebaker.com Ken E Baker

                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.

                • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/members/ronfritsch/ Ron Fritsch

                  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.

  • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com/members/ronfritsch/ Ron Fritsch

    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!

  • http://novemberhillpress.com billie hinton

    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.

buy flomax boots ou acheter le levitra dulcolax 5mg tablets fosamax generic drug can you get ampicillin z pack dosage schedule side effects of diflucan in dogs pharmacy has best price cytotec what is allied healthcare alli refill pack 170 snovitra super power online australia depakote tablets purchase on line chloroquine order on web aciclovir drugstore.com qual o nome do medicamento generico do viagra sominex canadian pharmacy costo viagra farmacia how to buy cymbalta in london amitriptyline buy online buy ranitidine in ireland can buy plavix canada to buy methotrexate in uk shop accutane online canadian bactroban how much cialis should i take the first time dosage of misoprostol cytotec abortion pill what is the dose of valtrex for genital herpes is generic midamor effective cafergot buy online us warfarin without a prescription zoloft pas cher italie cymbalta commercial music feature audio skelaxin drug interactions side effects tanning after accutane cycle best viagra online reviews ciprofloxacina infeccion urinaria nombre comercial ashwagandha tablets dabur fosamax cost in canada nizagara canada head office buy lexapro online forum free diovan coupons chloramphenicol generic for mexican discount zofran 4mg antabuse without a prescription from canada is himcocid a prescription drug do you need a prescription for viagra in the usa gin and tonic quinine malaria para que se usa el amoxil buy mircette bulk lasix tablets for purchase cheapest place to get singulair prandin italiano keppra pill canadian lamisil uk no prescription buy eulexin 200 how much is kamagra soft tablets metoclopramide overnight buy depakote perth australia what is capoten for buy luvox tablets online glucotrol xl order online buy albenza astrailia cheap allegra nursing shoes prescription bromocriptine dosage for weight loss cytotec 20 mg donde comprar live view en mexico innopran xl no prescription compare prices remedio motilium generico is it illegal to order generic exelon what is decadron mg used to treat orlistat cost australia getting zyvox in australia how many trazodone 100 mg does it take to overdose cholestoplex daily use reviews buy viagra from canada amoxil 500mg capsule a amoxil 500mg side effects buy menosan usa phone in order for cholestoplex bystolic side effects blurred vision tadalis sx tablets uk altace online australia effexor xr anxiety panic beconase aq overseas do injectables work better than clomid flovent online bestellen diflucan generic drug maxalt 5 mg tablets clomiphene citrate 100mg men best price for minocycline is generic glucophage available in usa no prescription order liposafe cod buy cytoxan inhaler canada buying prescription drugs online uk legal zoloft by mail order tretinoin gel 0.025 price what is content insurance flagyl for dogs pets omifin precio 2012 where to buy benicar drugs online buy brand levitra without prescription research grade nymphomax pharmacy technician jobs northern canada aceon precio mexico how to get a prescription for valtrex tetracycline 500mg capsules side effects purinethol uses medication apo-terbinafine alcohol vpxl pills order kamagra flavored online generic pills for mestinon methotrexate walmart peach football xanax street price flonase over counter alternative rumalaya forte drug class buy glyset new zealand online cardizem 20mg tab quickest vytorin amlodipine besylate 5 mg tamyl buy premarin next day delivery asacol prices at costco levitra mg canadian rx famvir coupons order nolvadex medication by mail russian drugstore toronto elavil from china cefixime tablets ip 200 viagra soft buy online ireland mirapex sales 2009 viagra online store american desyrel bystolic dose for anxiety lipitor brand order reviews on prevacid caverta no prrescription buy albendazole fast shipping clomid steroids uk amantadine suppliers overseas cheap accutane uk generic buy hoodia pills australia purchase nolvadex on line in australia purchase actos 25 mg order indinavir online uk buy motilium in australia where can i get generic lexapro where to buy keppra buy levaquin boots buy sominex discount motilium dosage in children brand cialis refills nizoral pills sweat atacand tablets online meclizine lawsuit settlements que es el cialis 20 mg female viagra reviews for men xalatan sold over counter content control t mobile canada order aldactone where to buy doxycycline without a prescription brand prazosin buy suppliers of levitra in us allopurinol 300 mg cost walmart aricept discontinued haldol decanoas wiki tofranil visa azithromycin alcohol pfizer topamax usa no prescription over the counter erythromycin for acne buy aceon perth australia fluconazole tablets ip can you get high off snorting gabapentin para que sirve la prednisona de 50 mg national socialist movement uk donde puedo comprar cialis en espan~a cheap nimotop free delivery difference entre viagra cialis or levitra where to buy levothyroxine tablets generic to buy imitrex depo provera weight gain bentyl best price bactrim without script drugs similar to proscar genuine alligator belts sale cheapest albendazole to buy compazine tablets online cialis soft tabs dosage pomegranate juice like viagra methotrexate american family physician can you buy diabecon online doxycycline common uses low price capoten uk do i need a prescription for cialis soft buy atacand next day elavil for anxiety best benadryl prices doxazosin shortage 2012 resources for prednisone comprar ephedraxin en argentina buy decadron uk buy rumalaya uk buy lexapro tablets uk levaquin price india vantin antibiotic side effects how long does it take for meclizine 25 mg to work ramipril overdose symptoms zyrtec 10 mg price nizagara prices at costco how to take doxycycline for acne which is better qsymia and belviq cardura over counter uk acheter atrovent pas cher what is prednisone for kids how to use albendazole wellbutrin sr birth control online canada alavert online order roxithromycin genericon 300 mg gasex canada sale giving tetracycline dogs feldene order by phone zestoretic max dose buy tenormin online pharmacy buy avandamet online long time side effects finpecia is it legal to buy prescription drugs in canada order 1 accutane mgb low cost renagel can order retin-a ge canada cheap clozaril buy online birth control pills dostinex buy zithromax no prescription uk how much is adderall xr 20 mg without insurance buy coreg capsules accutane side effects pregnant women chloromycetin maximum dosage prilosec looking for proventil inhaler dosage what is coreg data misoprostol for induction uk desyrel side effects forum biaxin over the counter drugs buy tadalis sx online with mastercard comprar celebrex original hydrochlorothiazide oral tablet 25 mg proventil online in uk buy ortho tri cyclen online from mexico seroquel xl 300 mg side effects best price for real aygestin purchase effexor xr to buy levlen in uk pliva 433 pill snort order prednisone 1 mg long time side effects acivir pills generic from coreg how much is astelin tablets when will a generic for vytorin be available pharmacy technician online schools accredited is there a generic tegretol xr best uk online pharmacy suprax 100mg/5ml suspension indocin dosage for preterm labor haldol ordering no prescription mobic delivery mycelex-g tablets from buy generic serophene in usa zestril spain mestinon coupons prograf cheap price viagra professional canadian source buy lexapro online 24 hour delivery are generic drugs made in india safe what is the medication decadron used for zantac price costco alli back on sale disgrasil precio bogota lexapro brands india walmart pharmacy jobs salary effexor xr dosage range provera 10mg + canada is 5 mg of levitra enough purchase calandre paco rabanne buy tadapox from india purchase albenza online avalide pharmacies in ginette-35 online legally maxalt buy on line cephalexin buy online ireland prednisone tablets 20 mg propecia reviews side effects premarin pills estrogen finax on line where to buy levothyroxine tablets synthroid himalaya confido india dapoxetine canadian pharmacy lov cost shuddha guggulu alli canada purchase ginette-35 spain bupropion lawsuit all chlamydia symptoms in women zofran 4 mg dosage instructions european conference of oncology pharmacy 2013 online forum overnight delivery buy astelin can order floxin canada saw palmetto breast growth reviews obat ventolin syrup salbutamol ventolin nebules price lamictal drugstore.com levaquin prices at costco genuine arava best price cheap compazine india beat way to order triamterene generic atorlip-5 buy canada generic stromectol no prescription arythromiacin without perscription mr discount drugs meridian mississippi buy celebrex boots pure american ginseng capsules epivir-hbv dose discount hydrochlorothiazide otc lynoral results forum mirtazapine sleep architecture motilium canadian pharmacy lipothin amazon what does solu medrol treat get a prescription online for adderall where to buy sildenafil generic augmentin no prescription norvasc store can u get high off robaxin-750 best site to buy revia generic triamterene for sale on line innopran xl from usa pharmacy cialis daily plus viagra buy diabecon no prescription suppliers of endep in us wo kann ich in deutschland viagra kaufen liposafe over counter generic avapro in brand name brand allegra buy vasotec ordering online pharmacy using canadian pharmacies online sertraline overdose how much exelon plant sale erythromycin buy online uk viagra soft overnight shipping cheap where can i get nimotop pills buy topamax with no rx effexor xr overdose nymphomax 50mg tablets what is arjuna java best site get furosemide atarax dose maximale tape worm tabs praziquantel dosage allergic to synthroid symptoms prevacid solutab back order viagra professional order in the us exelon generation company dicyclomine bentyl side effects drinking alcohol zithromax domperidone for sale without a script buy mgb diamox sports medicine advisor back pain stromectol online bestellen what is cefixime tergecef pariet 5mg tablets what kind of inhaler is proventil sertralina 50mg para emagrecer tadalafil wirkung buy zyvox iv allergic is generic adalat available in usa buy mentat ds syrup boots pharmacy fucidin h cream 30g used is it illegal to order generic wellbutrin sr resources for prometrium buy sinemet with visa can you buy urispas in ireland canadian pharmacy - ukraine phentermine side effects hair loss costo furosemida mexico evista discounts order diarex cod overnight filmes online a cabana na floresta where colospa pfizer samples for physicians simvastatin and ezetimibe in aortic stenosis seas trial suprax for purchase without a prescription buy pyridium bulk do i need a prescription for ortho tri-cyclen cost of vytorin without insurance buy cabergoline cheap could you buy lisinopril canadian pharmacy micardis in canada where to buy aleve d order non generic norvasc deltasone mist canada buy lipitor online usa generic for zithromax antibiotic amantadine no prescription generic brand name albenza dosage recommended precose no prescription compare prices cheap keppra 40 mg periactin tablets for dogs european online steroid pharmacy generic bystolic for sale on line my canadian passport expired what do i do cabgolin overnight duloxetine side effects coming off can you get celadrin what is the typical dosage for viagra furadonin safe buy zaditor online what is lamictal used for in depression antibiotics for ear infection in kids can you buy zestril street value 100 mg viagra meloxicam 15 mg tablet sangria pomegranate juice recipe premarin generic release date bupropion online pharmacy purchase risperdal 4mg best place to buy cialis soft online how to take keppra mg cheap albendazole us online pharmacy zolpidem uk nhs where can i get some levitra professional forzest reviews for men order alligator clips revatio y viagra buy zyloprim online overnight xeloda max dose how can i get a prescription for valtrex costco online south korea penegra tablet side effects albuterol salbutamol hfa inhaler buy seroquel online canada no prescription 1man1jar org 1 man 1 jar original video lowest priced revia canadian meds world complaints diflucan thrush dosage evecare to buy in australia what are fertomid pills can you buy online accutane users flomax side effects flomax medication where is the love lyrics meaning sale brand advair diskus can you buy diltiazem online purchase lithium metal pariet mail order india liquid clomid dosage for men purchase diamox pills fertility pills over the counter for men what are the side effects of decadron kamagra fast complaints ordering midamor side effects of zyban and alcohol antabuse para que se usa overnight pharmacy amitriptyline depakote free shipping best lopid prices metformin lactic acidosis symptoms valtrex canada cost buy nootropil online no prescription us erythromycin india brands keflex reviews uti buy kamagra from india online viagra buy chloromycetin in singapore benemid without insurance online prescriptions from doctors free tretinoin 0,05 online cheap lipothin usa sale what is toprol xl for cam you order claritin canadian pharmacy what is diflucan used for in men cipro without a prescription from us prograf tablets for purchase isoniazid drugs com genuine amantadine without how to take mifepristone and misoprostol wellbutrin price anxiety in children at school customer reviews on unisom how long does it take for prometrium pills to work relafen for sale emsam price comparisons propecia is now generic prednisone prices dogs best price confido generic cialis soft gel cefixime dose typhoid fever serpina canadian pharmacy low price naprosyn uk magkano xenical philippines genuine furosemide best price buy wellbutrin sr tablets xenical buy online diovan hct generic prices robaxin best price aciclovir tablets over counter canadian pharmacy actonel what is seroquel 100mg order allegra d 12 hour amantadine dose dogs