sallyhanan’s blog

A writer’s blog

How to Write Opening Lines April 30, 2009

Filed under: Writing — sallyhanan @ 5:36 pm
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As a fiction writer, the opening lines are the all important hook that should keep a reader searching for more. If I think of casting a feast-laden hook into a river and dangling it there, my eventual hope is that a fish will wriggle by and stop for a moment to chew on the prospects before him. In the same way, when I cast my opening lines onto a sterile page, I want them to be feast-laden enough to catch wriggly readers.

How can that happen? Usually, when I am trying to think of what to write, I will imagine myself in certain situations and ask: What would make me stop and want to find out more? Keeping in mind that I want the opening scene to be somewhere readers can picture themselves, I choose some of the more obvious/familiar places people frequent:

Grocery store
Back yard

I start on the first one. OK, I’m pushing my shopping cart down the aisle. I’m tired and I hate shopping and I just want to go home, back to my computer. What would spark my curiosity? I hear a child scream and the mom’s voice snapping back. I hear a slapping noise. I want to go and investigate. Is the mom a horrible woman; is someone kidnapping a child?

Now I have to take all of those thoughts and decide which of them to put into two sentences. Those first two count more than any others, except, maybe, the last few. Before I write, though, I also have to put myself into the location in such a way as to imagine myself seeing, hearing, touching, etc. I can feel the plastic coolness of the cart handle. I can hear the scream. I can feel the sudden “mom alert” jolt in my brain. I close my eyes in my virtual reality world. Here goes . . .

Her fingers had almost reached the last box of Snappy Yellow Crunchies when she heard it—the instant, shocked, hurt cry of a child. Susan froze.

It’s okay, but not great; it sounds too much like something anyone would write. As a writer, I want to be original. This is where the Thesaurus is such a help. Reach is such a boring word; that’s why I am going to change that one first. Reach leads me to touch, which leads me to tip. I keep going with the other words.

With her feet on the bottom shelf of the cereal aisle, her longest finger had almost tipped the edge of the box of Snappy Yellow Crunchies when she heard it—the urgent, shocked, offended wail of a child. Susan’s arm dropped onto the top shelf, which, in turn, threw the rest of her torso into disarray until her knees were pressed under the third shelf and her back and arms flailed into the arms of the passing stranger.

Now I have the reader about to chomp in on the feast. They want to know more about Susan—the woman who doesn’t mind standing on shelves to get to the top one; the woman who is affected by the cry of a child; the woman who has suddenly fallen into a stranger’s arms. Who is this stranger? What is going to happen next?

Perhaps you can help me write the rest of the story. 😉


One Response to “How to Write Opening Lines”

  1. Sally – thanks for this bloggy advice! Maybe I will help you write the rest of the story. I was just telling hubby today, after skimming over our new Janet Evonovich book, that I should write a comedy-romance. This would be a perfect opening line. Or at least practical advice to jump start me.

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