Do you really need to have captivating first lines? The simple answer to that is there are no rules that say you have to, but the reason writers look for captivating first lines is not only to grab the reader’s attention, but also to maintain it.
Great opening lines can do that because they have the power to lure and entice the reader, to spark their imagination, to compel them and intrigue them. It makes them want to read the whole story, not just the opening line.
Stephen King said of them: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story”.
There are plenty of writers who ignore the concept of a captivating first line and instead launch into lots of unnecessary narrative (info dump) or they overload with backstory in the belief the reader needs all this information to understand what the story is about, but the opposite is true. Less is more.
So what makes a captivating first line?
It’s one that effortlessly leads your reader into the story, one that evokes imagery and mood and sets the tone. After all, the job of the opening line is to capture your reader’s attention and keep it so that they read the entire book. More importantly, it’s the proceeding sentences and paragraphs that really count – the unfolding story thereafter.
How do they work?
They work by drawing the reader into the fictional world you’ve created, they act as a lure, a bait, they tempt and tease so that they have to know more about this fictional world and the people that inhabit it because readers just love to read about interesting, unique characters; people we would either love to be, or be with.
Writers use these captivating first lines not only to hook the reader, but to establish the voice of the novel. They set the tone by hinting at something bad that will happen or has happened, and of course, they provoke and illicit emotions from us.
Many first lines raise questions that, as a reader, you desperately want to find the answer to. Some of the opening lines of well known novels have achieved this:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984, George Orwell.
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” - The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath.
“I bother only with widows.” – Tender Prey, Patricia Roberts.
“They’re out there.” - One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey
“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Neuromancer, Willian Gibson.
These first liners intrigue, they catch the reader off guard, they draw the reader in to want to know more, but the thing about first lines is that they can be foreboding, dark, light-hearted, mysterious, emotional, clever, surprising...in fact anything you want them to be.
If you are looking to try traditional publishing, then it’s even more important to get the opening line to your novel just right, because it has to entice not just any reader, but a potential agent and publisher. It needs to make them sit up and take notice.
Every opening line is different, and all of them fall within the context of the whole story, so the opening should be two-fold – to entice the reader enough to want to read further, and to introduce the story in such a way the opening doesn’t detract from the story, but rather enhances it.
Some writers are vivid with their openings. Some are unflinching. Some are powerful, and when the initial surprise disappears, the story is then firmly established and the reader is hooked. As the writer, you want their attention.
If you want to write a captivating first line, think of the story as whole, think about context. Don’t just write open with a bang which has nothing to do with the story. The opening must connect to the rest of the story. You should ask yourself what kind of opening you want – one that is dynamic (creates mystery, shock, surprise or raises questions) or one that sets the mood and tone and creates a certain atmosphere.
The best way to familiarise yourself with them is to study different opening lines from a range of novels. You’ll find most of them do the following:
- Set the tone of the story
- Establish a connection with the reader through mystery or conflict or emotion
- Raise questions that the reader wants answers to
- Shock or surprise the reader into knowing more
Some writers spend a lot of time on their opening, while some create an opening line instantly. Either way, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you try not to overcomplicate it or overthink it. Most of the best openers are short and simple.
Don’t open with backstory or lots of information, otherwise the reader just won’t be interested and try to avoid prologues – these can be a turn off, unless you can make the opening line of the prologue mesmerising enough to lure the reader.
Remember, there are no rules about this, but logically the opening line should captivate. We want the reader’s attention. We want them to read our stories, and continue reading.
Next week: Why focusing on small details is important