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Discussion questions: As a reader, how does a writer hook you within the first few lines of a book or story? As a writer, how do you hook a reader with your opening? Share the best opening you’ve ever written, or share one you’re currently struggling with (and tell us what the struggle is). And don’t be afraid to comment on another writer’s opening! Does it make you want to read more?
YOU HAVE TO GET THE READER’S ATTENTION WITH YOUR FIRST LINE!
But in a more elegant, far less obvious and obnoxious way than I’ve done here.
Your first few lines are your only chance to make a good first impression. In journalism it’s often called the hook, so called because it’s your chance to get the fish — i.e., the reader — on your line. To make the reader take your bait and then keep taking your bait.
It’s of utmost importance in fiction, too.
There’s a reason the internet abounds with lists of the best and most famous opening lines: Clocks striking 13, particular homes being spiteful, instructions to call someone Ishmael, queer, sultry summers full of electrocuted spies. “First sentences are doors to worlds,” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin.
But it can be difficult to unlock those doors, and even if we do, they can be creaky, and, oh god, this line is terrible. (Thankfully I already have you on the hook!)
How do you write a good opening?
I don’t know!
But I do know a few things I don’t really like:
— Novels that open with dialogue (seems like most of you don’t like it either)
— Writers trying *so* hard to be profound or to show off their lyrical prowess that they communicate nothing about the story
— Any opening I’ve ever written
Also, in an August 2019 Yak Babies episode we discussed what we like and don’t like about the beginnings of books. I don’t remember what I talked about. Doesn’t August 2019 seem like six lifetimes ago?
(For you YB Patreon subscribers, there’s also a fun EIME game about the opening lines of books.)
It really boils down to this:
If a reader likes the first line, he/she will be more inclined to read the second. If he/she likes the second, he/she’ll be more inclined to read the third. And so on, until “hooked.”
I’m currently working on my eighth different opening paragraph for a short story I want to submit. It’s not getting better every time, but the present version is the best so far. And hopefully is the last! It provides a lot of the who, what, where, when, why, and how, but is also about as well-written as I’m capable of.
What’s the best opening you’re capable of? In the comments below, share your favorite of your own opening lines, fiction or non. (Try to cap it at 100 words or so; the longer it is, the less likely that people will read it!)
Or share a few examples of your favorite openings as a reader.
Or share what you look for in the opening lines of books, stories, journalism, etc.
Are you currently struggling with an opening? Share it below and tell us what the struggle is.
And while you’re here, help another writer out by offering some feedback on an opening or two.
WriteByNight writing coach and co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.