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What to Avoid When Writing Your Book's Opening Lines

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Page one matters to book buyers. The book cover is the hook, pulling readers in, the book description gives an idea of the kind of book it is, and then what? We take a peek at how the book starts—what it feels like to read this book. That’s where the final decision is made: in the opening lines. 

Your first sentences are the make or break when it comes to convincing a reader to buy your book. The middle of your book may very well show off your best writing to date, the place where your story turns from enjoyable to unputdownable, but no reader is going to know that if they don’t get past page one.

Famous Opening Lines

Let’s look at some of the more famous opening lines in literature:

  • “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” –Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  • “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” –I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith (and my personal favorite)

These lines grab you. They avoid common tropes and thus, we are pulled into the uniqueness of the story, wanting to know more.

The opening line in your first draft is usually lazy and unoriginal—and that’s okay. Go ahead and throw it down if it gets you past that initial hump, but remember to go back and rewrite it.

Common and Overused Tropes to Avoid

1. Waking Up

Your protagonist awakes with a start, at the sound of his/her alarm, or by someone calling their name—wakes up in any way at all. This one is so overdone that even mentioning it seems trite. It makes perfect sense (we begin our days by waking up, so if this story is about a person’s life or day, then of course he/she wakes up to start) which is likely the reason it’s so common.

What can you do instead? Situate readers in the environment that will tell the most about your characters and plot so that they can settle in and get acclimated—get interested. If the feeling your protagonist had upon waking is important, they can ruminate on their morning later on.

2. Dream Sequences

The opening scene is a dream from which your protagonist awakes later on. This is one step beyond the “waking up” trope. How is it worse? Misleading your reader right from the start is a bad idea and will likely doubly turn them off if they were more interested in the dream story than the one your book actually tells!

What can you do instead? Avoid it altogether! Again, start your story in a place where the reader can learn the most about the world in which your book takes place in the most natural way possible.

3. Literal Introductions

Opening with a character introducing themselves. Especially prevalent in YA, personal introductions don’t work for a singular reason: it pushes the reader to the periphery. Instead of being able to immerse themselves in the words on the page, readers are told right off the bat that they have no place here—that someone is telling them a story rather than allowing readers to find their own connection to it.

What can you do instead?  That’s right, “show don’t tell.” Introduce us to your protagonist not by having him or her tell us who they are, but by showing us what they do, what they want, what they say, or how other characters treat them.

These are only three of many overdone and thus less effective ways of opening your book. How do you know if you’re starting your chapter with a trope? Ask yourself if it feels familiar, if you’ve read something like it before. If so, then stretch your creative muscles and find another way to tell the story.

When a reader picks up your book, aim to surprise and intrigue them by the promise of your opening lines.


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Rachel Stout

Rachel Stout is a writer for New York Book Editors, an editorial service that connects authors to veteran industry editors. That’s a fancy way of saying they’re nerdy matchmakers. They help authors find editors who are passionate about their work, which is when the magic happens.