Creating Skilful Opening Lines

opening lines“Come on in, the water’s tepid”

Oblivious to new authors and a source of much anguish for experienced writers, opening lines are not only key to hooking readers, publishers and agents, but they create for the writer the substrate from which they sculpt their story.

Few are done well…

When writing my first book, it wasn’t until some chapters in that I created a new first chapter. The fresh opening lines defined the fantasy world in a way that changed the story from an easy-going single quest to a deep and gritty series. (On advisement from my editor, I later changed the first chapter again and the beloved lines moved to a couple of pages in. Something I still regret.)

Great first lines echo in your mind throughout the book as you measure everything that’s happening against them. For example, David Copperfield:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show”.

You cannot help but read the book with that test in mind.

What are the top three goals for your first lines?

  1. They MUST trigger curiosity in the reader to know more, preferably about the LEAD or a relationship.
  2. Introduce the writing style and tone of the book.
  3. Create the setting: where, when, who (usually the LEAD or antag).

You could use mystery, something unusual, or the old favourite – something shocking. But be careful to avoid first lines for their own sake, just to hook the reader. They must be authentic to the characters, plot and style of the book, otherwise you’re using a cheap trick to entice readers – something they will not appreciate later on.

Here are some of my favourite opening lines from both amateur and established authors:

I wanted to strangle mother, but I’d have to touch her to do it.
A student on a Sol Stein writing course.

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced the archbishop had come to see me.
       Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgessearthly-powers

Harry Masterson would be dead in thirteen minutes. If he had known this, he would’ve smoked his last cigarette down to the filter.
       Sandstorm, James Rollins  sandstorm

And the original lines I regret moving in my book?

Estatoulie leant over the charred remains of the former Emperor. A grin spread across his face, taking over all his features. ‘Hail me,’ he said contented, and drained the content of his fifth glass.

The smell of burst flesh intruded upon his perfect moment. Picking up the wine decanter, he poured the remaining two-hundred-year-old content over the fading embers.

‘There you see, I’m not completely heartless.’

He looked to the decanter, appreciating its exquisite quality – it was unique and priceless. He shrugged and dropped it onto the spine of the corpse. Both shattered.


Now he would be emperor…

I’ll let you decide if I was wrong to wish it had stayed…

And you?

Do you have any favourite first lines from books?

And how do your books start?

Miles Allen

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