By Riley Amos Westbrook
The start to any project is principal. The opening needs to sink its hooks deep into your readers, to keep them interested and reading.
The beginning of any journey is paramount. It’s important that your words draw your reader farther into your rabbit hole, so they keep reading.
The opening lines to anything you write are important. They need to have a certain amount of pull to keep your readers engaged, or you risk losing them to other entertainment means. (What if we, later in the document, go back to this opening sentence and rewrite it several different ways, as an example?)
I’m not one of those authors who has to have the perfect opening. I don’t stress over every word, making sure it sounds exactly as I want, before moving on to the next section of the story.
Still, I struggle when I start a new project to come up with a great opening sentence.
The great thing about first drafts is you can come back and fix anything that doesn’t sound right.
For instance, when I started writing Everyone Dies At The End, I wondered how I was going to convey the sense of urgency a heroin addict might experience after a long period of withdrawal. I tried a dozen different lines before I ended up with what I felt was the perfect opening paragraph.
I can’t help you attain perfection, I don’t even chase that goal for myself, but I did want to take the time to offer some suggestions when it comes to opening lines.
1. Think of your story.
With “Everyone Dies At The End” (“EDATE”), I weave together two story lines. One is a family just trying to survive the zombie apocalypse, the other is a heroin junkie looking to score his next fix. The opening lines to this book could have gone one of two ways (More on this in a second).
If your story is meant to be a light-hearted romp through life, then your introduction should be that. If your story is a harrowing journey full of action and adventure, then you need to give your readers a sense that something fantastical is coming.
When thinking of your opening lines, think of where you want your story to go. How can you firmly establish in a reader’s mind just what kind of a journey they’re about to go on?
2. If it isn’t working, try something else.
For a while I debated opening “EDATE” with a scene from the family. A happy scene full of love and compassion. I must have written it six times over the course of a couple weeks before I realized it wasn’t working for me. It felt too campy, and though there are moments of levity and joy in "EDATE,” for the most part it is a dark book that explores the darker side of humanity.
When I switched to the other story line, the heroin addict, everything started to come together. That storyline was much easier to create a compelling beginning from, and I soon found myself whipping through the book.
If something isn’t working, you know it. If something is, you know it. Trust your gut as a writer, and let your words do the talking.
For example, the first lines I came up with for “EDATE” were along the lines of, “The heroin junkie sat on the stairs, thoughts of her addiction at the top of her mind.” While I felt this was a good line, I knew it could be better if I tried. A little bit of reworking, and this is the line I ended up with: Jadee scratched her arm, feeling the itch in her veins that begged her to inject herself with tar.
3. Use power words.
I hope you are already doing this in your writing, but if not, now is a good time to learn. Power words are an excellent way to create a compelling opening for your book. Using words that connect to people’s feelings will help to draw them into the story, and keep them glued to it until the end. If you get them interested, they will stay for more.
Like in the example above, adding in Jadee scratching her arm, and feeling the itch in her veins makes it so people connect a little more with the character. The more you can do to make your readers see, feel, taste, touch your environments in your book the better. If you immerse them in your world, they will be lost in it for hours.
4. Use a headline analyzer.
I use these a lot when I’m writing blurbs, and lately I’ve found them extremely helpful in writing opening lines. It sounds strange, using a marketing tool for your start of your book, but I think it works out. If you haven’t played with one of these before, you should try it. It’s amazing how small changes in word choice can change a simple sentence into a compelling bit of storytelling, and this is one of many tools I use for word choice.
My two favorite are the Advanced Marketing Institutes, great for short lines, and Co-Schedule’s, which you can use for entire articles.
This is just a few of the things I try to keep in mind when starting a new project. Whether it’s a short story, a novel, or a blog post, your opening can make or break the rest of your book. A few well placed lines can make everything else come together with hardly any effort.
And remember: although the opening line is very important to the story, what’s more important is not to allow the opening line to hold you back as a writer. I have known writers to get so caught up on writing the opening line that they never actually write the rest of the book because they’re so hung up on starting it right. Sometimes, it’s best to just press on and keep writing, and sometimes, the perfect line will come to you once you’re further into the story.