Three EZ Ways to Write Better Opening Lines

Cherokee actress Delanna Studi might make a good Frankie Chasing Bear.

A workshop I attended recently challenged the group with the following: What kinds of questions are raised in readers’ minds by your opening line? Whoa. Don’t novelists get at least a couple of sentences to hook the reader? Not so fast.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are some ideas for piquing readers’ interest and stimulating questions:

Introduce Dissatisfaction.

According to Chris Vogler (The Writer’s Journey), a story begins at the far edge of what he calls “ordinary time.” The idea here is to contrast a relatively secure, common or boring life so the reader knows they’ll be able to relate. You may have heard of creating memorable characters–many times these are variations on Everyman or Woman, yet they’re about to embark on an adventure of sorts–willingly or not. Yet if your first line doesn’t reflect some sort of DISSATISFACTION with Ordinary Life, the reader may not get far enough to read the adventure. I think it’s a good idea to at least hint that as secure, comfortable or predictable that life is, the character is somehow still dissatisfied.  Some novels open with the character feeling misunderstood, wronged in some way or just feeling confined by the realities of living. Even if it’s only vaguely, your opening line must demonstrate the overriding sense that somehow, things are about to change. Big Time.

Raise an Alarm.

Another way to pull readers in with your first line is to raise an alarm of some sort. A little girl has lost her ability to speak. An American Indian woman’s truck breaks down. A character must move to a new community or return to one she’s been away from for years. In each of these scenarios, you want your readers to say, “Oh no!” In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale is dissatisfied with her boring life until Miss Gulch gets hold of Dorothy’s beloved Toto and threatens to have him destroyed. Oh and by the way, there’s a HUGE F-5 cyclone on the way. In each of these things, an alarm goes off in readers’ minds, and the next question is naturally, “How will this be resolved?”

Go For Gut Feelings.

See a pattern here? The opening line should be crafted to not only orient the reader as to the character, setting, time or other important info, but to induce Emotions or FEELINGS. The closer you get to gut feelings, the harder it will be for readers to ignore or not sympathize.  Those feelings which are universal such as protecting loved ones, feeling included or loved or even physical survival tend to elicit the strongest responses. That’s why inserting babies or cute animals arouses readers’ sympathies so readily. Most of us have a strong drive to protect the helpless or the vulnerable. Take a look at your novel’s first line. What kinds of information does it provide? More importantly, what kinds of questions does your opening line raise?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

6 comments on “Three EZ Ways to Write Better Opening Lines

  1. I am always glad when I take the time to click over and read your posts, Linda! This is a good one and INTRO is so hard for many writers! KUDOS on a quick, precise, great tidbit of information!

  2. Thank you for the advice. I need it and appreciate it. I am writing my first novel and the opening line is:
    Hadara was orphaned when she was eight years old.
    What do you think?

    • I think it’s good, Rickey, but could it be even better? An opening line should raise questions in the readers’ mind. Yours does, but just think how much more unforgettable and emotional it might be if it also hinted at either the reason for it or her attitude toward it (EX: Hadara had been orphaned at eight, long enough to know how to take care of herself.) Or something like that, shows she’s tough. See what I mean? I’ll bet you think up a perfect line! Keep Writing! ~Linda

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