Monday, September 16, 2013

What Comes First

This summer, author Stephen King gave an interview to Atlantic magazine in which he talked, among other things, about how long it takes him to craft the perfect opening line for his novels. (Read the interview here)

It’s interesting that someone who is as accomplished as Stephen King – who is known not only for a career spanning decades but for being so productive that he once had to publish under a pseudonym because his publisher feared he was flooding the market – not only values the first line so much, but still spends so much time crafting it. That first line is vital – it should grab the reader by the throat and pull her in, letting her know that this is a compelling story, that these characters she’s about to invest hours in are worth it.

In today’s publishing world of free books and 99 cent deals, the opening sentence is more important than ever. A reader who has just invested $26 for a hardback or even $10 for a new Kindle offering by a best-selling author will probably read further than that first boring sentence. But readers who just downloaded ten free books from Bookbub? Probably not.

As a reader for a literary agency and a reviewer for a book web site, I read about three books a week – two unpublished and a third that was probably self-published. Many of these books violate the first line rule. They’re not written to intrigue the reader and pull her in; rather they seem to be written in a hurry, designed to jump over in order to get to the story. Recent beginnings I’ve slogged through include:

The protagonist waking up and going through the day’s to-do list;

The protagonist brushing her hair and describing herself in the mirror;

A boring conversation between the protagonist and her best friend.

These are not opening lines that are designed to draw readers in. And yet, another piece of advice writers are given is to introduce the protagonist before starting the action. What better way to introduce her than by describing her or showing her in her ordinary routine?

It is a conundrum. Especially for writers of contemporary women’s fiction, who generally don’t have the luxury of describing a dead body in order to draw in their readers.

One way writers solve this problem is by concentrating on their protagonists’ states of mind. That way, she can introduce the main character while saying something intriguing enough to keep the reader interested.

Here are a few opening lines from women’s fiction that drew me in:

“All you have to do is get through this,” Sarah told herself. The Good Wife, Jane Porter.

“Have you seen it?” asked Samantha. Good in Bed, Jennifer Weiner.

“Hold it!” a voice commanded. These Girls, Sarah Pekkanan.

“Since the very first moment she had laid eyes on him, Lorna Connaught had loved Dante with a hot fierceness that both excited and shamed her.” Totlandia: The Onesies, Book 1 (Fall), Josie Brown. (What I liked the most about this opening sentence is that the author uses words to imply that it’s about romantic love, but it’s really about the love a mother feels for her baby.)

For my own women’s fiction novel Keeping Score, I tried to craft an opening line that gives a sense of what the story is about thematically (how competition destroys relationships) while creating immediate sympathy for my protagonist. This is what I came up with:

I was ten years old the first time my best friend dumped me.”

Hopefully, this sentence promises one of the main threads of the story: that this protagonist is about to, once again, get dumped by her best friend.

If an author as successful as Stephen King still takes his time in crafting the perfect line, the rest of us should follow his example. If your first line doesn’t promise readers that a great story is to come, keep rewriting it until it does.


  1. Interesting read; thanks for the examples. Ugh, sorry 'bout those boring first lines you had to slog through! I'm still working on my first line myself...but first I have to decide which chapter is going to go first! lol

  2. This is so important! I went to a session at a writer's conference where we all worked on our opening lines together. They really helped me start my first novel, What the Dog Ate, in the right place:
    "The vet handed Maggie Baxter a plastic specimen bag containing a pair of size-tiny lavender thong panties extracted from her dog; but they were not hers."

    I originally had a variation of that sentence about a page in.

    Great opening line for Keeping Score. It definitely hints at the conflict to come!