The opening words of your novel may be all a prospective buyer will read before making their purchasing decision. Are yours an opening salvo; an opening punch; or an opening sigh, easily dismissed?
They will also be the first words an agent or an editor reads when they see the sample chapters you have pitched.
Every story starts somewhere. Even “once upon a time” is a beginning. I thought it would be fun to have you read some opening lines from ten different books written by a few of our clients. (These were chosen completely at random as we have nearly 1,000 published novels by clients to choose from in the office!)
See if you can match the words with the title and author. Your only prize is intellectual satisfaction for being well read. (I’ll post the answers later today.)
Meanwhile, try to think how they are different. How they suggest the genre. Some may even hint at the setting. What is being set up? What intrigue? What action?
I’m not asking if you like the words. Instead, what makes them work? These were published by major publishers. Some are from award-winning novelists (like the Christy Award, the Carol Award, and the RITA). I’ve numbered them to help you with trying to figure out which one is which when guessing the author.
(1) Julia Foster lifted her gaze to the clear October sky as a lark swooped past. Her step slowed and her thoughts took flight, following the bird as it dipped into the golden trees beyond the meadow. If only she could fly away, back to the familiar life and cherished friends she had left behind in India. But that dream would have to wait.
(2) I collect words.
I keep them in a box in my mind. I’d like to keep them in a real box, something pretty, maybe a shoe box covered with flowered wrapping paper. I’d write my words on scraps of paper and then put them in the box. Whenever I wanted, I’d open the box and pick up the papers, reading and feeling the words all at once. Then I could hide the box.
But the words are safer in my mind. There, he can’t take them.
(3) I couldn’t take my eyes off the casket. It was expensive, and it glowed, resting among the candles and the heaps of flowers. It so perfectly expressed the man inside.
(4) At least they couldn’t fire her.
Andrea Sullivan propped her elbows on the bar and buried her head in her hands. How had things gone wrong so quickly? One minute she’d been on the verge of closing a half-million-dollar deal. The next, she’d nearly broken her hand on the jaw of a client who thought her company’s offerings extended to favors she had no intention of delivering. Three years of working her way up the ranks toward VP of Sales all down the tubes because one man couldn’t keep his hands to himself.
(5) Fire ruptured the black veil of night. A pillar of orange and yellow roared upward, thirty meters, leaving a trail of smoke, ash, and debris in its wake. Metal groaned and heaved, collapsing in exhausted defeat. Screams ripped the air, their primal howl propelling him across Kandahar Airfield.
(6) I watched my diaries burn.
Pages curled in on themselves, like spider legs accepting death. My past–my stories–turned to ash and tendrils of smoke. But I would not weep for them. The Bolsheviks could take far more precious things from me. I would not give them my tears.
Every breath came out like a faint wisp, a lingering spirit within the sanctuary, only to evaporate into the frozen air.
(8) Oh, this was a bad idea.
Epically, abysmally, horrendously bad. The kind of betrayal that just might end any hope of resurrecting Sierra’s already tattered relationship with her former boss/friend/the man she couldn’t seem to stop loving.
(9) Melodia Stuart stood before her father in his study. She tried not to shiver. Winter’s chill hung in the room despite flames burning in the gray stone fireplace. Shivering would indicate weakness, which Father despised. Since he considered the space a man’s domain, Sir Cuthbert Stuart seldom summoned her there. Her requested presence bespoke the profound importance of his news.
(10) The sense of dread that began with Becky’s email pressed Gillian Short deep into her seat as passengers filed past her down the aisle, a line of eye-rubbing yawns and bouncing impatience.
Great opening lines, and I could not identify one of them.
I think that what they have in common is a vital question, framed in such a way that the reader can identify with the situation and wants to know more…asking her-or-himself, “What would I do in this situation? What would I do next if I just punched out a big-shot potential client for getting too familiar?”
Just for fun, here are the opening lines to a story that will not be written.
Sharp satiric sonnetry
brought him means and ends
emotional and monetary,
but it now had cost him friends.
He skewered folk in word and rhyme,
those who did not matter,
politicians and celeb-slime,
but other worlds were shattered.
A single bullet in the night
driven by verse, and not by fate
turned inward on a songstress bright,
sister to the poet’s oldest mate.
Now he was shunned, to even the score,
but the dead girl’s brother wanted more.
Barbara D'Antoni Diggs
I must say, these first lines made me want to read every single one of them!
I am eager to find out who wrote these. There are a few of them that have piqued my interest and I may end up buying. This is a good tactic to, not only show the power of the first few lines but also prod someone to buy the book.
Such imaginative first lines! Some of them did indeed make me want to buy the book.
#2 is definitely Ginny Yttrup’s Words. #5 makes me think of Ronie Kendig and #7 Morgan Busse’s Mark of the Raven series.
You picked three out of ten! Yes, #5 is from a Ronie Kendig book.
If I were a baseball player, I’d be an all-star at .3oo. 🙂
Sharon K Connell
I’m not familiar with any of these books, but #4 and #8 would definitely get me reading past that first line. They sound a bit like the way I start my stories. Clinch that reader with the first words. Make them wonder why and what comes next. LOL
None of these were familiar. Only #5 sounded interesting, which seemed to be the start of a military confrontation. Then again, I’m a guy and have an interest in such things.
#8 starts off with three adverbs. Who does that these days?
I know that #10 is from The Baggage Handler by David Rawlings. I was privileged to receive an ARC copy and really enjoyed it!
You are correct!
So good to hear Lila!
#1 Words that are sculpted into a seamless flow. An immediate sense of place, season and character, including the imagery of the lark that sets the story itself into motion. Visual metaphor (i.e. the flight of the lark) intertwining seamlessly with the character’s inner life. Intriguing reference to India, especially given the character’s Anglo name. Cliff-hanger at the end.
Love it! Thanks for this thought-provoking exercise, Steve!
These are all engaging. Gets the reader seeing some form of conflict which drives stories. I have to say that the 8th one would be a bold start for a first-time author considering the adverbs. That stood out. It makes the tone light and amusing as if they’re prepping you for a few chuckles later.
The adverbs in #8 came across to me as the character’s voice, which sounded very much like how a real person might think/react.
I struggle to write opening lines in my stories, though I know how important they are, especially if you’re reading something by an author that you don’t know yet. One of my favorite opening lines in a novel is “She should have said something.” This comes from Karen Kingsbury’s book “The Bridge,” and it immediately draws me in every time. Who is she? What should she have said, and to whom? I love that kind of opening, where it immediately gives you some knowledge about the main character–in this case, that she has regrets–and builds questions in your heart.
Wow… do I know any? Nope. But now I wanna.
#11 should/needs to be…
“I stared at case charts and familiar nametags with a pang of regret for who I’d become and who I wasn’t, simply because I knew their names. There it was. I knew their names.
If only I knew mine.”
see what I did there? Yarp. Mine. And the ultimate hubris that it will be one day in my lifetime published.
If it works. please let me know (if not, I will definitely change the whole shebang).
There wasn’t much left of the guy. A point blank blast from a shotgun seldom leaves much. But questions. And we had plenty . . . (ha, ha, ha!)
I like it!
Is it published, because, I want it!
One thing I’ve noticed is that an opening that hooks holds a promise that the writer must fulfill in the story; and usually this first line requires a rewrite once the m/s is finished.
agreed on that. I have rewritten the first lines so many times I can no longer count!
also, backstory so bogs down the story and the middle.. and the end has to fit the story. I cut almost the entire backstory to leave 3 paragraphs which turns my MS’ beginning more into a prelude. Works for me, but I don’t know how well this goes over with agents/publishers.
But that first line grabs. Then the first paragraph. Then the first page. Each word has ta count.
As promised in the above post I am revealing the author and title of each of the first lines:
1. The Governess of Highland Hall – Carrie Turansky (Waterbrook)
2. Words – Ginny Yttrup (B&H, now independently published)
3. The Heir – Paul Robertson (Bethany House)
4. Five Days in Skye – Carla Laureano (David C. Cook, now published by Tyndale)
5. Falcon – Ronie Kendig (Barbour, now independently published)
6. Romanov – Nadine Brandes (Thomas Nelson)
7. Mark of the Raven – Morgan Busse (Bethany House)
8. Troubled Waters – Susan May Warren (Revell)
9. A Duplicitous Facade – Tamela Hancock Murray (Barbour)
10. The Baggage Handler – David Rawlings (Thomas Nelson)
Okay, I know a few of these.
#2 is Words by Ginny Yttrup
#5 is Falcon, by Ronie Kendig
#6 is Romanov, by Nadine Brandes
#7 is Mark of the Raven, by Morgan L. Busse
#8 is Troubled Waters, by Susan May Warren
I have a feeling I should know #3, but I can’t place it.
Of the first lines quoted above, the ones that most grab my attention are the ones that have a short first line that conveys a strong visual image or emotion/sensation. Overall, I think a first line needs to make the reader ask “Why?” Think back to some of the most well known first lines, like Pride and Prejudice, with its obvious irony, or that delightful first line from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” They don’t just make you wonder, they demand you ask “Why?”
You win for most right answers before I revealed them!
I reiterate that it is these first lines that will be your first impression with an agent, an editor, and eventually a reader. Be careful with them!
I’m afraid I don’t recognize many of the books lines- but it has certainly given me thought’s for my first lines in my manuscript! Thank you so much for the insight, Mr. Laube! I’m a young writer, (as in age and not genre) but I truly look forward to new posts on your blog each day. The publishing industry fascinates me, and I hope to become part of it.
Hey, Gideon! Young writers unite! Keep it up–we’ve got this, right?
Absolutely! With God, anything is possible!
Dear Mr. Laube,
As I mentioned in a previous comment, I am a young writer. And as such, platform is an issue for me, as I have none. Is platform essential to fiction writing, or can it be offset in by outstanding writing? By offset, I mean for the time during the book proposal period. Of course platform would be an issue afterwards. Would you reject a proposal for a lack of platform? Thank you so much! Also, God bless you! Had you not represented certain authors, I never would have even dreamed of writing.