Writing 401—#2, Opening Lines

I came right out and asked her one day. I’m talking about the literary agent who landed me the contracts for Airwaves and Only His Kiss, and the question every writer wants to answer with such prowess and proficiency that failure is impossible.

What made my manuscript stand out from the others stacked on your desk?

I might have hoped for any number of replies—that the characterization was stellar, the plot kept her guessing, that the writing was superb. Nope; what she gave me was four words:

“The three-second test.”

What’s the three-second test? The amount of time she spent looking at each manuscript submitted, the amount of time it took her to read the opening line. (But no pressure, of course.) If it didn’t hook her, she tossed the bundle of pages to the “discard” pile, and moved on to the next one.

“It’s a girl, sir.”

That was the opening line that convinced her to keep reading, to give me another five seconds, the time it took her to read the next paragraph of the manuscript that became my second novel, Only His Kiss.

The hook has to accomplish one of two things.

1. It must ignite a question—What’s going on?

The opening line must make the reader curious enough to part with the money to buy your book and to part with the time to read it. (If you just mumbled to yourself that you don’t care if they read it, only that they buy it, please close the door behind you.)

2. It must promise rich beauty.

The writing must be poetic, lyric; experiential. If the words were scenery, they’d compel the reader to snap a photograph every thirty yards. If they were musical notes, their journey would make the reader’s chest ache and their throat close with emotion. As an assemblage of words, the opening lines make them nudge the nearest human being, and say, “Listen to this. Let me read you this line.”

Above all, opening lines must be so quotable, they are memorable.

This one sparks curiosity. “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” Such is the beginning of S.E. Hinton’s young adult novel, The Outsiders. She was all of sixteen when she penned it. Since the book’s publication in 1967, it’s sold more than fourteen-million copies.

The first two words in this opening line are the first and last name of the primary character, a great launch for an epic novel, don’t you think? “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were,” — Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell.

This one is lovely. “There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth,” — The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough.

And this one is just plain fun. “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him ‘Wild Thing’ . . .” — Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.

There’s no such thing as spending too much time on the opening line of your novel or short story. Remember to fuss over, nearly as much, the opening lines to each scene. Because the opening line sets the tone. The opening line leads the team. The opening line weighs the anchor. The opening line is a fanfare. The opening line turns the key.

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