Anatomy of the opening line, part 1…and a little contest

diagram-star-novel-writingstefaniacolorsMost of my writerly friends are just like me – we all hate the beginnings of novels.  We struggle to figure out exactly which point in the novel to start with – where the best hook is, etc.  So, determined to figure this out, I am going to look at this in depth over a couple of posts.  To get things started, look at the openers listed below.  Some are from best sellers, some are unpublished.  As you look at these ask yourselves a few questions:

  • Do they hook you?  Why or why not.
  • Would you read on?

Then leave me a comment and let me know the answers.  I will randomly pick from the comments left between now and Friday.  I will post the winner next Monday, when I tear apart openers and look at the anatomy of the opening hook

Okay – here are the openers:

  1. Elsa woke with a start, her mind still focused on the harsh words of her father. 
  2. In a West African Village, Marissa Brand Okari watched her husband prepare to risk his life for the act of speaking out.
  3. Seth knew the moment Aislinn slipped into the house; the slight rise in temperature would’ve told him even if he hadn’t seen the glimmer of sunlight in the middle of the night.
  4. Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.  He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio.  Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Auniere collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.
  5. The man who was going to stand by and watch while Helen burned to death liked his coffee black.
  6. Always running.  Always the same.  I ran through a landscape scattered with images of forests and high-desert plateaus.  This dream, ripped from the darkest recesses of my memories last summer, was clearer than the others had been.  I ran.  Terrified to stop, yet too weak to continue. 
  7. The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlight lane.  For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their clocks and started walking briskly in the same direction.
  8. Karne and Kyra lay on their bellies in he long grass within sight of the tall Stones of the Sacred Circle, but well hidden from view themselves.  They were about to commit an act of blasphemy.  They were about to spy upon a priest.
  9. If this were a movie instead of real life, this would be the part where in a strange, ominous voice I’d say, “Take me to your leader!”

What do you think?

And remember – you have until Friday to leave a comment.  Oh, almost forgot.  Up for grabs… either a B& N gift card, a signed book (deets on Monday), or a 10 page crit. by me.  I’ll draw a name at random and post on Monday…

12 thoughts on “Anatomy of the opening line, part 1…and a little contest

  1. Trust me, I agonize over the opening. I recognize a few, and I have to say that while everyone hypes up the opening lines and pages and such, I think there’s more to a book than that. THAT said, I do want to be hit with great writing, great voice, and something happening in the beginning. If you’ve got that, I don’t need like, fireworks or anything.

    I also have noticed in my own writing that sometimes I know exactly where to start and other times I can’t quite figure it out. I wonder why that is…Could you talk about that, please? LOL.😀

  2. This is actually really timely, because I was just telling a friend of mine that my latest project breaks the rules a little, in that it doesn’t technically have an opening line. It starts with a list.

    But it works for this project. I honestly think way too much emphasis is placed on the first pages. I get why that is… we work in an industry that is flooded. Editors and Agents need to be able to quickly assess their interest in a project and move on to the next one.

    Still, I’m not sure that carries forward to the average reader. If I think I’ll like the concept of a book, or if it’s been recommended to me, I’ll read chapters of it, giving it a chance to meet that expectation. I recently read a book that didn’t capture my interest until somewhere around 150 pages in. I don’t assume that I represent the average reader, but I’ve never met anyone who judges whether to purchase or keep reading a book by the first line or even the first few pages.

  3. I’m with Elana–some people start to think that the first line is the be all and end all. And it IS important…but an issue I tend to think gets more credit than it deserves. Personally, I think a good pitch paragraph will keep someone reading past the first page, as long as the first page isn’t a cliche or badly written. Readers read past the first page for the potential of the story, not for whether or not they’re hooked.

    But…here’s my take on the lines…Judging by JUST this line and not the story premise, am I hooked or not?

    1. Elsa woke with a start, her mind still focused on the harsh words of her father.

    -Not hooked–because this sounds as if it’s starting with the cliche of waking up in the morning. (but I wouldn’t quit reading here–I’d definitely read the rest of the page and see if it was cliched)

    2. In a West African Village, Marissa Brand Okari watched her husband prepare to risk his life for the act of speaking out.

    -Maybe? If this was fiction a la Chinua Achebe, I’d read on…but if it was dry nonfiction, which some books of this genre unfortunately fall into, I’d quit.

    3. Seth knew the moment Aislinn slipped into the house; the slight rise in temperature would’ve told him even if he hadn’t seen the glimmer of sunlight in the middle of the night.

    -Not hooked–because I’ve read this one and didn’t really like it!🙂

    4. Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Auniere collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

    Hooked–even though I know (and don’t really like) this book (I think…it’s been awhile…not 100% sure I’ve got the right book in mind). But see? That’s the difference–this is more than a sentence, this gives a broader aspect of what the story is than the others, which were just one sentece. If you’d stopped at the first sentence, I’d have ignored it. But going into the paragraph makes me see where the story is, and that hooks me more.

    5. The man who was going to stand by and watch while Helen burned to death liked his coffee black.

    Hmmm….maybe I stand corrected. HOOKED. That’s a great first sentence–I wouldn’t need the rest of the paragraph.

    6. Always running. Always the same. I ran through a landscape scattered with images of forests and high-desert plateaus. This dream, ripped from the darkest recesses of my memories last summer, was clearer than the others had been. I ran. Terrified to stop, yet too weak to continue.

    Eh. You’ve given me more of a paragraph here, so perhaps if the pitch was right, I’d read more–but I don’t know what the story is about, and I’d need that to know whether or not it was wroth my time.

    7. The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlight lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their clocks and started walking briskly in the same direction.

    (Know this one!!) Hmm…I’m impartial because I know and love this one. But at the same time, I DO think it has those hooky elements–the wands let you know this is fantasy, and there’s a hint of tension right here on the page.

    8. Karne and Kyra lay on their bellies in he long grass within sight of the tall Stones of the Sacred Circle, but well hidden from view themselves. They were about to commit an act of blasphemy. They were about to spy upon a priest.

    I’m learning as I type and comment!!! I started out saying that you can’t learn much without the pitch paragraph, but you know? I think you can. I think it does extend past the first sentence–but right now, I’m most drawn to paragraphs that show some element of the story (wands) or tension within that first pargraph. For me, the paragraph about running wasn’t very hooky because the tension was there, but vague and unclear. This paragraph didn’t really hook me until I got to the blasphmey—that’s a pretty good twist and shows me a source of tension.

    9. If this were a movie instead of real life, this would be the part where in a strange, ominous voice I’d say, “Take me to your leader!”

    Eh…seems as if it’s trying to be funny. I think the next sentence might hook me.

    Thanks for doing this! I learn best when I analyze through writing…and this made me look at what really hooked me. Basically, I think I need some sense of what the story is ABOUT to be hooked. This could be a combination of good writing + a good pitch paragraph that tells me what the story’s about, or a clear indication of a conflict and source of tension within the first paragraph/page.

    When I think about buying books, I buy them based on the paragraph in the front flap of the dust jacket or back cover, then I look at the first page. That’s enough to determine whether I buy the book or not. I just want to know the story and dive right into it.

  4. Ooooh, I like posts like this.

    Elsa woke with a start, her mind still focused on the harsh words of her father.

    Nope. Firstly, I’m put off by the “cliche” other have mentioned. Secondly, it feels like the writer is rushing me into the story by placing these two clauses together. Waking with a start generally means something pulled her from her sleep. The second clause should allude to what pulled her from her sleep. If her father had spoken harsh words in a dream, then that clause should allude to that.

    In a West African Village, Marissa Brand Okari watched her husband prepare to risk his life for the act of speaking out.

    I’d like to see this from Mr. Okari’s POV. It seems he has more to lose than his wife here.

    Seth knew the moment Aislinn slipped into the house; the slight rise in temperature would’ve told him even if he hadn’t seen the glimmer of sunlight in the middle of the night.

    Not really, but I know this one so that kind of skews the results, too.

    Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Auniere collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

    Wow, there’s a lot of info dumped into this opening. Is that necessary? I would read on in hopes that the info dump would soon stop.

    The man who was going to stand by and watch while Helen burned to death liked his coffee black.

    Immediately, I’m turned of by the gerund clause, but I’m intrigued by what is about to happen.

    Always running. Always the same. I ran through a landscape scattered with images of forests and high-desert plateaus. This dream, ripped from the darkest recesses of my memories last summer, was clearer than the others had been. I ran. Terrified to stop, yet too weak to continue.

    In a Secret Agent contest on MSFV, an entry of mine was blasted by Kristin Nelson for overusing short sentences and sentence fragments for dramatic effect. Since then, I’ve made a huge effort to curtail the drama. In the process, I developed a sort of dislike for it. This opening, while it’s content is intriguing, uses a lot of that dramatic effect. I’m inclined to be cautious. This one is a maybe.

    The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlight lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their clocks and started walking briskly in the same direction.

    Nope. Not my genre.

    Karne and Kyra lay on their bellies in he long grass within sight of the tall Stones of the Sacred Circle, but well hidden from view themselves. They were about to commit an act of blasphemy. They were about to spy upon a priest.

    I don’t like the foretelling, but I’m curious about why they’re spying on the priest and what the priest is about to do. I’d read on.

    If this were a movie instead of real life, this would be the part where in a strange, ominous voice I’d say, “Take me to your leader!”

    I like the voice. I’d read on.

  5. This is interesting, as I’ve recently been a part of a ‘first five sentences’ critique on my group blog, giveagirlapen.com
    It was difficult to critique based on just five sentences, so I’m wondering what will come of this exercise.
    OK….

    1. Elsa woke with a start, her mind still focused on the harsh words of her father.

    —I would read on because even though Elsa is waking up, I’m already interested in the father/daughter relationship. That’s hard to do in one sentence, and this author accomplished it!

    *2. In a West African Village, Marissa Brand Okari watched her husband prepare to risk his life for the act of speaking out.

    —I might read on, but I’m not exactly hooked. I reallyreallyreally dislike when a full name is introduced right away. I like a more subtle introduction. The same goes for the location. It doesn’t need to be stated in the first sentence. The end of the sentence is interesting, though—the only part that would make me continue. But I’m not all gung ho about it…

    3. Seth knew the moment Aislinn slipped into the house; the slight rise in temperature would’ve told him even if he hadn’t seen the glimmer of sunlight in the middle of the night.

    —It’s hard to comment on this one, as I adore this series. This book wasn’t my favorite of the three, but this sentence is vivid and, honestly, it’s written well. Descriptive, but not over the top. There’s enough intrigue here to make me want to read on. If I didn’t know about these characters, I’d most definitely want to. And with it being a sequel, if I did know the characters, it’d make me want to read on because I can see the growth from the first book.

    4. Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Auniere collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

    —Three sentences here, but i guess it is the opening. Again, I don’t like that the character’s full name and occupation is given in the first few words. Then there’s the location, an artist’s name, and an age. That’s a lot of information for just three sentences. I might read on, but it’s kind of information overload for me. I enjoy a slower unwrapping.

    5. The man who was going to stand by and watch while Helen burned to death liked his coffee black.

    —Oh, I like this. A lot. Subtle details about the man who remains nameless which adds mystery. The dying woman is only known by first name. There’s a lot given in this first sentence. I would definitely read on here!

    6. Always running. Always the same. I ran through a landscape scattered with images of forests and high-desert plateaus. This dream, ripped from the darkest recesses of my memories last summer, was clearer than the others had been. I ran. Terrified to stop, yet too weak to continue.

    —Hmmm… This is interesting. It needs some work, I think, but that’s not the point of this exercise. The way the setting is described is different and makes for a new type of dream. Or so it seems. I don’t mind that it opens with a dream, as it’s obvious this is a recurring thing for the character. It’s important to the story—not a cop-out. I would read more of this.

    7. The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlight lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their clocks and started walking briskly in the same direction.

    —I like the first line. I’m wondering what the wands are. I’m wondering why they would automatically fight before seeing who the other one is. What are the clocks for. See, this asks questions rather than giving a bunch of information. That’s what an opening needs to do to get me hooked. I would read more of this.

    8. Karne and Kyra lay on their bellies in he long grass within sight of the tall Stones of the Sacred Circle, but well hidden from view themselves. They were about to commit an act of blasphemy. They were about to spy upon a priest.

    —I don’t mind the names here, as they’re just first names. And where they are is pertinent to what they are doing. It’s not ‘proper name soup,’ so to speak. Also, why are they watching the priest? Who are these people? What did the priest do? Sacred and blasphemy used so closely together creates intrigue. Again—questions. Yes, I’d read on.

    9. If this were a movie instead of real life, this would be the part where in a strange, ominous voice I’d say, “Take me to your leader!”

    —I dislike when books and movies make references to the fact that they aren’t books and movies. Just make it real. If you can’t show something that’s unreal without making it seem real, I’d suggest not trying at all. Just my personal opinion… I’m not interested enough to read more of this. It seems sort of cheesy.

    *Now I’m going to go back and see what the other comment has to say. If we agree or not. This was a good exercise and made me think even more about my opening. Thanks!!

  6. Hey,

    I don’t have the time right now to analyze each one, but I love that you’re doing this, and I’ll certainly follow along.

    I’m writing my travel memoir out of order, so I’ve already written much of the book and now am going back to chapter one, and it’s STILL a struggle to pick an opener! Hopefully thinking about it in a different way — the way you’re suggesting here — will help.

    Looking forward to the next post!

    Alexis
    Aspiring Author blog

  7. Oooh, openings make my stomach hurt. Like Elana said, as a reader we know there is more to a story then those first few sentences, and that there doesn’t necessarily have to be fireworks for it to be a good story… but when you’re on the writing side of things and you know those will be the first words that an agent or publisher will be judging, well then the stakes are much much much higher.

    Great examples – I recognized a few of them.

  8. Opening lines give me an ulcer. We ALWAYS end up rewriting our first chapter about 1,000 times before we get it right. So frustrating.

    Anyways, #9 is my favorite.

  9. Pingback: WiP Wednesday, July 8 « The Musings of Christine Fonseca

  10. Yay for contests :D! This one is too much fun–thanks, Christine!

    1) Elsa woke with a start, her mind still focused on the harsh words of her father. (Hooked. There is already conflict in sentence one, and I want to know what the dude said that upset her.)

    2) In a West African Village, Marissa Brand Okari watched her husband prepare to risk his life for the act of speaking out. (boooo, hiss. Not hooked because I’m already being told what’s going to happen instead of shown. Sometiimes telling’s cool, but I’m not into it in the first sentence. I’m already bored.)

    3) Seth knew the moment Aislinn slipped into the house; the slight rise in temperature would’ve told him even if he hadn’t seen the glimmer of sunlight in the middle of the night (Ooooh! Mysterious and cool. We’ve got some powers going on, and it sounds like something sexy might happen. I’m intrigued.)

    4) Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Auniere collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas. (Yes, I know this is Divinci Code, and I wasn’t into when my relative told me to read it a year ago. I don’t know why, but all this detail just isn’t that interesting. Maybe I’m callous?)

    5) The man who was going to stand by and watch while Helen burned to death liked his coffee black. (Okay, so I know this is “telly” like that one I hated up above, but it’s so flip that I just don’t care😀. This one made me laugh, so I’m into it! Maybe… it wasn’t supposed to be funny… and I’m just a sicko, though… hmm)

    6) Always running. Always the same. I ran through a landscape scattered with images of forests and high-desert plateaus. This dream, ripped from the darkest recesses of my memories last summer, was clearer than the others had been. I ran. Terrified to stop, yet too weak to continue. (Even though I know this is the cardinal sin of starting with a dream, this dream is full of conflict and intrigue, so I would read on.)

    7) The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlight lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their clocks and started walking briskly in the same direction. (HARRY POTTER!!!😀 Of course I would read on. I’ve been waiting for this book for 2 years. I would read it if it started with “it was a dark and stormy night…”)

    8) Karne and Kyra lay on their bellies in he long grass within sight of the tall Stones of the Sacred Circle, but well hidden from view themselves. They were about to commit an act of blasphemy. They were about to spy upon a priest. (Ooh! Cool. I would read on. Spying and religious secrets are interesting.)

    9) If this were a movie instead of real life, this would be the part where in a strange, ominous voice I’d say, “Take me to your leader!” (Hehehe. Kind of funny. I’d give it a page or two more, but I’m not totally sold yet.)

    Okay, tell us truthfully. Is this exercise just so you can analyze us?😉 I think I told more about myself with these answers than the books. Lol.

  11. uppington

    Actually, I like writing beginnings. This doesn’t necessarily mean anybody else will like what I write, but it’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process.

    It’s interesting to see everybody’s differing opinions about what does or does not work. Personally, if I had to choose only one of these, I’d go with #6, beginning with the incomplete sentence. This writer’s words compel me, they flow, there is poetry here. If I like the writing, I will read on.

    Second choice, #8. Most of the others would require a blurb, or reading a couple of pages. Even the ones I recognize and read and loved. Go figure.

  12. Pingback: The Opening Line, Part 2 …and the Winner is « The Musings of Christine Fonseca

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