What makes a great opening line?

What Makes a Great Opening Line

I don’t think you’ll find anyone, reader or writer, who will disagree that opening lines are important. It’s third in a series of first impressions (more below) and a reader is looking for any excuse to put your book down and pick up another. So I spent a lot of time pondering my opening line. I read a lot of them (and wrote about what I thought to be the 15 greatest opening lines in fiction), and I decided on one thing:

All my favourites were teasers.

Take a look at the post and you’ll see what I mean. Each opening line raises questions and encourages you to read the next one and the next one until you get some answers. So I began to think that this was the sole purpose of the opening line: get them reading. I saw it as the third act in the drama of book selling:

1) The cover makes you pick up the book.

2) The blurb makes you open the book.

3) The opening line makes you read the rest of the book.

Those are your first impressions and those are your opportunities to hook the reader. So I thought I had it sussed and sorted. That’s why The Fey Man opens with: “The Easterners were arriving that night but Thomas Rymour didn’t care.” Who are the Easterners? Why doesn’t this Thomas Rymour care about their arrival?

Then other people began to tell me about their opening lines.

It’s about setting too.

Check out Jaye Nolan’s opening lines and you’ll see that plenty of them are about setting the scene. They create an instant image in the mind. I would say these are less about intrigue and more about welcoming a reader into the book’s world.

And never forget the power of humour.

Which is something I did forget. This isn’t the preserve of humorous titles such as Pratchett or Holt; while it’s easier for them to start with a joke, there’s room for humour in even the bleakest of stories. And if you make someone laugh, they’re more likely to like you and your book and keep on reading.

These are definitely viable goals for an opening line (and I’d love to see one that managed all three!) But what do you think? What is the purpose of the opening line? What should it be telling (or not telling) the reader? Leave a comment and let me know.

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