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Writing that Sizzling Opening

“If you don’t know where to begin your story, try introducing readers to the protagonist’s unmet desire, vividly show them the location, and give them something to worry about.”
Steven James, Story Trumps Structure

Getting started is the toughest… you’ve written so many openings that just fizzled… right? I've written the opening to my next novel about 10 times and it's still not quite right.

I'm trying not to agonize too much. I'm hoping that the perfect opening will hit me once I'm well underway. I'm sure I'll re-write it a hundred times before I'm happy with it… and then re-write it again!

Looking for inspiration I just grabbed a couple of my favourite novels off my book shelf and then headed to Amazon and took advantage of the 'look inside' option of some best sellers.

Here are a few I came across that definitely grabbed my attention (a few contemporary and a few classics):

“When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter.”
No Second Change by Harlan Coben

America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets.” American Tabloid, James Ellroy.

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” Brighton Rock, Graham Greene 

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind.” Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984, George Orwell

“I was 37 then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to Hamburg Airport.” Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

“I am ninety.” Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen

These are all opening lines that would keep me reading. But, not all great novels start with a punch in the gut, a tug at the heartstrings, or an edge of the seat type line. So, it’s not just the opening line… it’s what follows. The key is to keep your reader turning the pages.

So, does the opening really need to ‘sizzle’? Does it have to be ‘gripping’? Or can it just gently draw the reader in as you lull them into an acceptance of living in the world you’ve created, even if it’s just for the evening or a few hours.

I guess it depends on your reader and what they’re looking for and the type of genre they enjoy. What grabs one reader might repulse another.

Which of these opening lines would make you read on? Ask yourself why.

  • “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” It, Stephen King
  • “They built it out of stone - dark grey stone, pried loose from the unforgiving mountains.” Asylum, Madeleine Roux
  • “On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending to the small, newly made driftwood cross.” The Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman.
  • “In the darkness he touched her arm and said, ‘Stay here.’” She did not move, just waited. The smell of salt water was strong.  She heard the faint gurgle of water.” State of Fear, Michael Crichton
  • “In Pakistan’s Karakoram, bristling across an area barely one hundred miles wide, more than sixty of the world’s tallest mountains lord their severe alpine beauty over a witnessless high-altitude wilderness.” Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
  • “The day I left for Brunei I took the subway up-town to Beth Israel, schlepping behind me a green flowered suitcase.” Some Girls – My Life in a Harem, Jillian Lauren
Some may sound pretty ominous, or terrifying. Do you want to be ‘terrified’ when you sit down to read a book? Some people do. Some openings are more descriptive of a geographic location, appealing to a world wanderer but not someone who wants to jump right into the action. Note that the last two are memoir not fiction, but some memoirs are certainly gripping!

I hope this give you some food for thought when crafting the opening of your novel. Feel free to share some of your favourites.

Happy Writing!

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blondieaka said…
Wow some great examples rock. I love that you help new authors like me so willingly , thank you :)
Happy to help! Especially when they have great stories to tell and unbridled enthusiasm :)
Gary White said…
Is it worth publishing your book through Amazon?
Pi-Erntedankfest Novel
Anonymous said…
One of the best opening lines - “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
I also really like Anna Karenina's opening line: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
And, of course, Pride and Prejudice's opening line: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Thanks for a great post!

Jennifer, Website

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