First lines matter. For readers, they’re a welcome sign, the promise that they’re in for a satisfying reading experience. For agents and editors, they’re proof that you know how to open a story in a way that keeps readers reading. If you don’t nail those opening lines, you’ll lose them right away.
As a reader and an agent and editor, I’ve read thousands upon thousands of beginnings—and critiqued them. I know a good beginning when I see one.
The Way In
Writing one, however, is something else. I still struggle sometimes to find the best way into a story. For me that means knowing what I’m writing about, both the big picture of the novel I’m writing as well as the scene in front of me.
You’d think I’d know how to do this by now; I’ve got two of my Mercy Carr mysteries under my belt, not to mention a memoir called Fixing Freddie and a popular book on writing story openings, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings. And yet I found myself unable to find my way into Book #3 of the series. I had my usual stack of index cards upon which I’d jotted down a novel’s worth of scenes, sub-plot ideas, character sketches, settings, and the like—typically enough to get me started.
But I still couldn’t see the opening scene, couldn’t hear the opening lines in my head. Trusting the process, I kept on researching and reading and filling a notebook full of writing that went nowhere. Then I said to hell with it. Because while I had plenty of plot twists and turns, I still didn’t know what my story was about.
It’s All About the Theme
The sooner your reader knows what your story is really about, the sooner they relax into your narrative. And the sooner we as writers can relax into the writing of that narrative. Let’s take a look at some classic thematic opening lines:
My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.
–The opening lines of The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
–The opening lines of Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
People say that knowledge is power. The more knowledge, the more power.
–The opening lines of Running Blind, by Lee Child
Be careful what you wish for.
–The opening line of The Ice Queen, by Alice Hoffman
Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris.
–The opening line of The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
–The opening line of Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Like many men and women who’ve worn a badge for a good part of their lives, Corcoran Liam O’Connor was cursed. Twice cursed, in reality. Cursed with memory and cursed with imagination.
–The opening lines of Tamarack County, by William Kent Krueger
Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
–The opening lines of The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
Read these openings, and you know you’re in good hands. These storytellers know what their stories are about and they know where their stories are going. We want to go along with them.
I had no trouble writing the opening for the first book in the Mercy Carr series, because I knew what it was about. It was about an MP and a bomb-sniffing dog who come home from Afghanistan mourning the loss of their man and their mission.
Grief and guilt are the ghosts that haunt you when you survive what others do not. Mercy Carr survived, and so did Sergeant Martinez’s dog. Nearly a year after her best friend died in Afghanistan, she rose at dawn and took Elvis on another long hike through the Vermont woods.
–The opening lines of A Borrowing of Bones, by Paula Munier
As I wrote these lines, I could see Mercy and Elvis in the woods, marching off their sorrow—and I could see what they’d encounter in those woods. I was off and running.
“For me, not knowing your theme until you’re finished, is like using a scalpel to turn a kangaroo into Miss Universe – there will be a lot of deep cuts, and there’s a high chance it won’t work.” ― David G. Allen
Sleep on It
Frustrated, I decided not to think about Book #3. I went to Europe to visit family. I went to California for a wedding. I came home and planted trees and pulled weeds and filled pots with petunias.
Dead tired, I went to bed—and woke up in the middle of the night with the opening lines in my head. I could see the scene happening before me. And I’m off and running again.
I can’t share those opening lines quite yet—I’m a bit superstitious that way—so I’ll leave you with perhaps the most glorious thematic opening of all time, as inspiration for your own opening lines.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
–The opening line of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
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