We’ve all heard the repetitive sage advice: “To have a good story, you have to hook your reader at the beginning.” You have to have a good hook.
Now, what does that mean?
In order to answer that, I’m going to answer the opposite.
What a Good Opener isn’t
A good opener isn’t just dramatic for the sake of being dramatic. Most importantly, it has to fit your story. If your story is a rom-com about a quirky librarian who meets a handsome investor trying to destroy the library and their only chance at romance is to convince
A good opener is almost always not what you write first. Going through the drafting process, most of the time you realize that the first thing you write is either scaffolding to just get the ball rolling, or, by the time you finish it, it doesn’t quite fit anymore. This is OK. Don’t be afraid to change things. Whenever you end up submitting your work, be it to an agent, an editor/publisher, a magazine, or contest, the first few chapters have to be sparkling and spotless. It has to really represent your best work.
A Good Opener is
A good opener is relevant to your story, and it is significant. What I mean by significant is that it relates in some important way to the rest of the book. For example, I wouldn’t start a book with: “She didn’t like pizza.” If the book has nothing to do with the character’s affinity for pizza. It would be appropriate, however, if the main character was tracking a deadly toxin that the villain of the story ended up putting in the pizza sauce of the particular brand of pizza that she ended up eating later.
A good opener can be any length. Short, long, anywhere in between. It has to sound good though. It has to be pleasing to read, and it has to make sense. I wouldn’t advice having a particularly long sentence as an opener, just because a reader wants a quick introduction into the story. In the same way that a reader wants to jump into the action and avoid exposition, a reader also wants to syntactically enter a story quickly. If it takes forever for readers to get through the first sentence, you risk them losing interest.
Steps to Take
First, read it out loud. In order to have a hook in your first sentence, the first line has to be something that you could read out of context and say, “Yeah, I’d read that. Sounds interesting.” So try reading your first sentence to an unsuspecting friend or critic. Gauge their response and get a sense of whether or not it needs work.
Second, draft a few first lines that sound good and match. If at first you don’t succeed, work your grass skirt off to get it right. If you don’t quite know what to do, there isn’t any harm in trying out a bunch of possibilities. You might stumble onto the right one, or you might realize that you need to do some more research into the soul of your book before you can kick out a killer first line.
Third, take a look at the end of your book. That is, if you’ve finished it so far. If you haven’t finished your book yet, you might not find the perfect first line until you’re done. And here’s why: a lot of people like to reread books. What’s more fun that taking a look at how the characters naively began their journey now that you know the trials and changes they endure? So it’ll help you out a lot to look at your beginning in light of how the book has progressed and ended. Just make sure not to give anything away!
In my opinion, a killer first line is just as important as a killer first chapter. For a point of reference, here are the first lines of each of the books I have finished and am working on (see the “My Resume” tab for a more detailed list). Some of them are good, and some of them still need (a lot) of work. Next to them is what the very first line was before I edited it.
Title/Current First Line / Original First line
“The Amateur Witch”
- He chose fire. / “With willful sin and subtle scorn, we witches stir up skies of storm.”
“The Amateur Witch: Loose Magic”
- Fire consumed him. / The curtains were drawn to reveal a gray morning, where the clouds patrolled the skies like sleepy sentinels.
- Coming out of a fourteen hour shift with little more than a bleached wall to look at, Lieutenant Henry Grixson should have been able to sue for the migraine pounding inside his skull. / Lieutenant Henry Grixson was posted in Corridor C at the fifth door down the white sterile hallway.
“The Amateur Witch: Alternates”
- “You are an omniet.” / [unchanged]
- A few of Kyra’s memories were sharp like a knife in her pocket, piercing her at odd moments. / The tang of blueberries, not quite ripe.
“Searching for Words”
- I crashed a plane. / It was a picture perfect moment, my mother and I sitting in the flight 43B terminal.