You’ve written the first draft of your book. Congratulations are in order! You’ve hit a major milestone and your project is coming to life. Now please go back and revise its opening lines.
You see, the opening lines of your book can make or break your book’s sales. How your book opens is the invitation you issue to your readers.
Of course, your book’s title and cover image are the first things a potential reader sees. Once they’ve both worked their magic, a potential reader will stop in to take a better look. And most often your book’s opening lines are where people do that. They will pick up the book, or its online equivalent, and read the first few lines to get a better feel for the book.
“Does this pique my interest? Do I get reeled in? Do I want to buy this book? Do I want to keep reading?” your potential reader will likely consider.
How your book begins will set the tone for your book, establish expectations and hopefully entice potential readers to buy the book and keep on reading. But what does a good opening line look like? And how can I create one?
Good Opening Lines
Here are a few examples of well-constructed opening lines from classic fiction and nonfiction books. Read them. Do they make you want to keep reading more? Why or why not?
“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.”
– Paul Auster in City of Glass
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
– Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice
“It’s not about you.”
– Rick Warren in Purpose Driven Life
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
– Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina
Strategies for Creating Great Opening Lines
When you’re ready to create (or revise) your own memorable opening lines, please consider these strategies as you sit down to write.
Surprise your reader. Start your book out by saying something that they wouldn’t ordinarily expect. Say something that makes your reader instantly curious about what has happened or about what you will say. Give them an unexpected taste and leave them wanting more.
Wax philosophical. Make your reader think – make your reader wonder – by stating a universal truth or a philosophical observation. Take your reader by the hand and lead them on a journey that they will be interested in making.
State a fact. Open your book by stating a relevant fact that will serve as an introduction to your book and its topic, as well as a solid framework that your book will live within. Use your opening fact as way of letting your reader know what they will be getting into when reading your book.
Establish a mood. While setting a scene or establishing a mood is a well-established device for fiction writing, the same can be applied to good effect in nonfiction books as well. Give the reader a sense of place, of setting, of scene, of circumstances – a look at the world the book will inhabit. This can be especially useful if the book’s backdrop is a world that, for whatever reason, may be unfamiliar to its reader.
Warm up with a quote. Begin the meat of your book with a pithy quote or two that supports the book’s thesis (or at least the first chapter’s main point). Operating like a statement of intentions, the quote is a way to quickly orient your reader to where you want to go, but at the same time it will give you room to craft a more gentle invitation immediately following it.
Introduce your characters. Present your readers to one or more of the personalities they will meet in the book. Give readers an idea of what they will see along the way and a taste of what makes your characters tick (or the real people who will inhabit your book, if it is nonfiction). If your book is written in the first-person perspective, one common variation is to introduce yourself and pass some kind of judgement on yourself.
Which of these strategies would be most appropriate for your book?