The First Sentence: Critiquing Opening Lines

Presently, I’ve got a challenge running here where you come up with an opening line to a story that hasn’t yet been written. It has attracted quite a few entries so far, as you’ll note.

I do love the topic of opening lines — on one hand, they’re important in that they’re the first impression a reader gets when opening your book. On the other hand, it’s easy to make too much hay of them: an opening sentence is perhaps less important than an opening page or chapter.

Just the same, let’s assume they’re of some importance.

If you’re comfortable doing so, drop an opening line (i.e. first sentence) from a current (or already written) WIP into the comments below. Then feel free to jump in and talk about the opening lines of others. Do a little quid pro quo critiquing. Also feel free to discuss what makes a good opening line, or what some great and memorable opening lines were from books you loved.

What works? What doesn’t?

See you in the comments, word-nerds.

740 comments

  • WIP’s opening line:

    The crazy chick’s left hook caught Rafe square on the jaw.

    Thoughts on opening lines: As a reader, I’m currently in a season in which I want the opening line and opening page to drop me right into a scene. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a heavy-action scene (such as someone getting socked in the jaw), but I do want to be right in the middle of it. I want the author to “get inlate, get out early,” so as to leave me with hungersome questions. I want the opening line(s) to be fast, snappy, to-the-point.

    My desires as a reader determine my desires as a writer, at least where this subject is concerned. Hence the opening line of my WIP. : )

  • Sinethe last time I shared I didn’t get any comments but a could tell many read so here I go again A young girl of about 12 years of age stands in front of the gravestone staring at the names.

    • “of about 12 years of age” doesn’t need to be included in the first line as it’s not much of a hook. And if she’s staring at the names on the gravestone, the reader can assume she’s standing or sitting in front of it, so that doesn’t need to be there either.
      I would suggest reworking it a little to something catchier or focusing more closely on whatever emotion she’s experiencing, for example: “The young girl has stared at the names so long that they’ve changed into something other than words.” or “The young girl stares at the names, her intense gaze almost carving them a half-inch deeper into the stone.”

    • Depending on what you are doing with the POV, the sentence can work, as-is. What it feels like to me, at the moment: the narrator does not know the girl, and this is the first time he has ever seen her. If this is what you are going for, then the sentence works if you are writing in 1st person POV. If you are writing in 3rd person POV, then the sentence needs to be edited as J. Lannan suggested.

    • I like this opening sentence. The syntax seems off or quirky, but I don’t think that is a bad thing. I’ve come back to your sentence four times since yesterday. At first I thought it was because the syntax was bothering me, and I can’t figure out how to fix it. It’s more like if you fixed it, would it change the way the sentence makes me feel, which is nervous. I want her, whoever she is, to be brave enough to try moving, but I don’t want her to be hurt by whatever is making it unsafe to move. If you’ve created that much anxiety in me, a chick that works for 911 and basically only cares about animals, because people are turds 99% of the time, then you’ve got a winner.

    • April 17, 2014 at 4:46 AM // Reply

      I really liked this and I want to know a) why he’s praying b) why he’s hidden (probably linked to the praying) c) where Dog Bottom is…

      • Thank you for commenting. I struggle with writing too much into a sentence. I find it difficult, to narrow my words to effect. My concern is that my writing style and genre don’t match, but I have to make it so, or else I am SOL.

        Answers: He’s praying because he’s very high and dying. He’s hidden simply because he’s fallen in the tall weeds. And Dog Bottom is in 1960′s – 80′s Hampton, VA, the black side of town. If you were white, and you didn’t want your “upstanding” neighbors to know what you were up to, you’d do it in Dog Bottom.

        Dog Bottom is the first step in a story that spans across time, to multiple continents and into alternate worlds.

    • Great sentence. We get a lot of information in such a short amount of time — very dynamic. Right away, even without your explanation, I got that he was (or felt like) he was dying from taking too much cocaine and that he was all alone in the middle of the night. The information that I get about the character is that he’s scared of death, and that makes him likeable because we immediately see his humanity.

  • Here’s a few opening lines that I have for my longer works:

    SKYLAND: I had never seen anyone die before.

    WIND CHASERS: Torrential wind slapped at my backside.

    HUMAN NETWORK: Crumpled in the corner, Emma raised her head.

    OTHERWORLDERS: Nightmares plagued Kara Miller’s sleep.

    NIGHTFALL: WOLF’S MOON: Amily Brun stood on the shore in the light of the full moon.

    DEALT: Everyone is born with a destiny.

  • Here goes:

    He gazed at me from across the foyer, a look of disgust and regret etched upon his face, and I probably looked at him the same way.

    • I like the scene your sentence creates, but I want you to make me work for it. Take the look on your character’s face “disgust and regret,” and describe that in action. The word gaze implies adoration, so I would use a word that matches the mood you are creating. As an example – “His lips pressed into a thin line, he cast a sideways glance in my direction, and walked out of the room. My fists clenched, I watched his back as he walked away.” I don’t know where your story is going, but based on the disgust and regret I tried to use descriptors that would echo the emotions. If it’s more sad than angry you would change the action bits to reflect it.

      I struggle with the action. The way I work through it, is thinking how would my story look as a movie. The camera is on the actor that is playing your character, and you, the director, tell the actor to convey disgust and regret in the scene. Then, you yell, “Action.” The “disgust and regret” are scene notes. The “action” is the story that you write.

    • I agree with joanna. I like the set up but there some problems with word choice. I think “etched upon his face” might be a cliche too.

  • The only hints the man was still alive were the palsied tremors of the bony and spotted hand dangling off the armrest, a thready, gasp-like respiration, and an mephitic flatulence that drizzled out wetly from time to time.

    • I would shorten it to something like, “The palsied tremor of his bony hand, dangling off the armrest, was the only hint the old man was still alive.” This sentence broke the story progress for me, because I had to stop, look it up the word “mephitic”, and then go back to reading. Then I wondered if you meant emphatic, because it was preceded with “an.” I have a decent vocabulary. I’m not bothered if I have to look up a word, but having to look up a word in the first sentence stopped me in my tracks.

      That said, I like your writing style and command of language.

      • Thanks for the catch on the “an”. Regarding “mephitic,” it was well considered. My work is literary and I don’t feel obliged to dumb it down for the genre crowd. If I was aiming for that, I’d have written: The only way you could tell he was alive was cuz his skinny old hand was shaking, he sounded like he was breathing with a f@cking hairball in his throat, and he kept loosing deadly-but-silent farts. ;-)

          • Thanks. It’s the kind of prose that attracts the comic book reader set, people who drool over The Simpsons, and people who would pick up a book after reading this scintillating first line: “The first sip of my first Tom Collins flowed over my tongue in a perfect mixture of sweet-tart lemon and crisp gin.”—which, of course, is the target audience any self-respecting author should aim for….

    • This sentence is intriguing, but feels loose for a first line. I am curious as to who are the dead and who is the audience. I’d like to see the first few lines to put it in context. If the goal is to make the reader continue to sentence two then you have a winner, because I want to read the next line in order to suss out the first line.

      • April 18, 2014 at 2:16 PM // Reply

        Thanks, Joanna. I agree about it being loose. When I opened that story back up and looked at the first line, I almost picked a different one, but that curiosity was what I was going for. Here’s the rest of the paragraph:

        The dead sang to an audience of one. Among twisted, sagging trees they drifted, voices raised in an echo of the sorcerous grief that had ended their lives. In the wan light of Luna, pale figures trod the forest city’s suspended streets, their feet falling silently on moss-covered planks and branches. Hollow eye sockets wept blood, darkening the ancient wood beneath them. Black mouths gaped, issuing a single ceaseless note; a scream become song. In their thousands, those voices formed a cantata, singing the tale of their slaughter. Their unburied remains, like cast-off clothing, rotted slowly in the cold gloom.

        • Dear Nerdimusprime,

          This is my love letter to your writing style. Your WIP doesn’t need a first sentence hook with lovely prose like that which you’ve written. I don’t know if this is a typo ” a scream become song.” I reads correctly, but it’s the least fluid bit of an amazing passage. I love the curve and turn of your phrasing; it’s richly textured, and sumptuous to read. I would buy the book based on what you’ve shared. Thank you for that.

          Truly,

          A Fan

          • April 19, 2014 at 7:22 PM //

            Dear joannadacosta,

            I am totally floored and unbelievably flattered. So much so that it took a half-dozen attempts to write this response. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I actually found myself a little choked up.

            Time permitting, I’ve been following along with the thread, and your critiques have all been well-reasoned, constructive, thoughtful, and encouraging, so I was looking forward to your response.

            Being my own worst critic, I was already picking it apart:
            “It’s too wordy.”
            “It’s *overly* descriptive.”
            “You’re not Robert Jordan, you know.”

            The “scream become song” phrase is definitely a bit of a burr. I have a semicolon abuse problem that I’m trying to correct.

            Your response has completely made my week. Thank you SO much!

  • From my ‘yet-to-be-edited’ first draft novella:

    ”I’ve told you, I didn’t kill her – I tried to . . . but I failed!”

    (go ahead: pick apart the punctuation ;) )

    • The idea is solid. You’ve got some conflict and an intriguing hint of story, but it doesn’t flow and the herky-jerky punctuation makes it difficult for you to sink the hook into my brain. I’d work on making it smoother, so the line goes down easier and you can get it set for your reader more easily.

  • Opening line from my third draft of my crime novel ‘Blam’ – any comment would be really appreciated:

    Anybody who knows me well enough to know what I do for a living eventually gets around to asking me the same few questions.

    • It’s fairly wordy. Why not “Anybody who knows what I do for a living eventually asks me the same questions.” The way you have it written ask the reader to parse a lot of information that can be better condensed.

      • I like Gomez’s edit–and I think it’s a really great opening line because you’ve got the draw of “what the hell does he/she do for a living?” (which is always good. As I think Stephen King said, readers are strangely interested in learning about the intricacies of a character’s career) and “what are the questions?” which is a fun way to open a book, kind of satisfying in a ‘quick list of possible storylines’ kind of way. Since it’s crime, readers will have lots of pre-fab questions already in mind regarding the genre, so it’s a neat way to immediately confound their expectations and give them your own take on it.
        My two suggestions/cents? Change “Anybody” to “People” and “knows” to “find out”. It’s somehow more specific, and I think a little stronger. (And “find out” implies that not everybody knows what the MC does for a living, which implies mystery.)
        “People who find out what I do for a living eventually ask me the same questions.”
        Cool line! Best of luck!

        • Thanks both – that’s really helpful. Now I read it alongside the cut-down versions it is obviously too wordy.

  • He smiled through his sigh, aware of his son looking up at him uncertainly, and gently peeled back Tavi’s soft, sooty fingers still stubbornly clutching the charred chunk of woman’s hair.

    • First thoughts? Too many adverbs. Cut them out, read it through again. Do you need stubbornly clutching? Or is clutching a solid enough verb? Guessing Tavi is his son? Why not say “his son Tavi looked…” How is the hair a charred chunk? Did it fuse together into a brick?

  • Can I still do one? :)
    I’m sixteen, and am progressing through my first, total-noob but really-trying-hard novel
    and this is my first line so feedback would be great.
    There is a special place in my heart for those who take those two minutes to comment, criticize or otherwise :

    “If the god-forsaken orange does not stop singing, she just might stab her own ears out.”

    • Ok, that’s an intriguing opening line. It immediately asks, “Why is an orange singing?”.

      Maybe it’s having a duet with my singing dead.

    • Looks good to me! Sounds like a fun read, just from the first line. You do have a split infinitive in there–it ‘should’ be “stab out her own ears”, but if it’s a stylistic choice, I say keep it. Editors might notice more than us plebs, though, and hold it against us, and since it’s your first line it might be a good idea to not have any grammatical errors, even if you know you’re committing them. Once again, if it’s part of your voice, ignore me and keep it in there! Nice work.

  • “No one ever questioned the city of Solace; it was the city of the great wall that protected its citizens from the dangers of the outside world. ”

    This is the opening line for the story that I’m working on. I would like some advice on making it grabbier. I want there to be something ominous about the city ‘protecting it’s citizens.” I also am planing to use similar phrases to “dangers of the outside world” commonly throughout the piece. Something like a mantra that the city dwellers repeat to themselves.

    • If it were me, I’d work on presenting the city in opposition to the dangers outside by showing those dangers. I’d also think you’d want to show that the protection offered by those walls had been taken for granted, but now something was about to change. That gives you some conflict and hints of danger to pull the reader in.

      Maybe something like: “The walls of Solace had thrown back a thousand monkey uprisings, but the cracks were beginning to show now that the great apes had joined the party.”

  • This is what I’m working on now:

    Stevie sucked on the bawling kid’s tattered ear, and her mouth filled with the taste of honeysuckle and tears.

    • Sounds completely terrifying and uncomfortable-making. Hopefully this is what you’re going for? I might shorten it to “Stevie sucked on the tattered ear, and her mouth filled…” You can mention that the ear belongs to a bawling child in the next line–for me, the image of someone sucking on a tattered ear and having their mouth fill up with weird tastes is strong enough to merit its own sentence. Good luck!

  • What follows is a made up epigraph for chapter one of my first novel. I’ve finished writing the story. I need a couple more months to complete the editing process.

    “Knees trembling and wondering, why am I holding a Limited Edition Louis XIII Custom Cognac Decanter in my right hand and why there is blood dripping off the gutter of a combat knife in my left.” (Unknown)

    • Sounds like you’ve got a lot of interesting stuff going on, but might could express it more clearly. From the current phrasing, I get the impression that the epigraph is narrated by a sentient pair of knees. And then they sprout a right hand and a left.
      So! Perhaps “My knees tremble as I wonder why I hold a L E L XIII C C Decanter in one hand and why blood drips off a combat knife in the other.”
      Explanation:
      I once read that using “right” and “left” to indicate hands, knees, body parts, etc is unnecessarily confusing for the reader, and I have to say I agree. It’s just extra wordage that doesn’t need to be there–do they really need to know which hand holds which object? Unless by saying that the knife is in the person’s left hand, you’re trying to draw attention to their left-handedness or striking ability to kill people via ambidextrous-ness.
      There’s another thing (I can never remember which part of speech it is), that ixnays words ending in “ing”–they’re weak. But it’s a matter of style.
      Also, I like that you’ve thrown in ‘gutter’, but it adds unusual period detail that perhaps detracts from the fact that the person is holding a bloody knife. “…why blood drips off a combat knife in the other” already has the word ‘combat’ in it, which gives more pertinent information about the situation than “gutter”.
      Could L E L XIII C C D be shortened to Louis XIII Decanter? Could you perhaps explain later on that it’s a L E Louis XII C C Decanter? It’s a bit much to wrap the brain around, and probably one of the least important pieces of information you’re relaying.
      Anyhow! I hope this isn’t way, way more critique than you were looking for. It sounds like a fun (time-travel fantasy?) novel–best of luck with the editing process!

  • Anna Reynolds was in the middle of a particularly nasty pile of expense receipts when she received the news that her father’s brother, Benji, had died in a small aircraft accident somewhere south of Kenya and left her a modest chunk of his fortune (in the arena of $100,000).

    Any help very much appreciated!

  • April 22, 2014 at 2:38 PM // Reply

    This one got held up in moderation for some reason, so let’s try again:

    The ash isn’t like wildfire ash, gray and musky with burnt life. It’s pure white and so fine it disintegrates when I touch it, like a sprinkling of powdered sugar over pancakes. There are piles of it everywhere, in all kinds of sizes, some sprouting metal shards and some revealing the gleam of a gold cross or diamond ring when I collapse them with a gentle kick.

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