Why A Novel’s Opening Lines Matter

I love opening lines. 

I mean, really love them. 

I’m a bit of an addict, to be honest. I walk through libraries & bookstores, cracking open book covers at random, just to read the opening lines.

Image Credit: Stefan Steinbauer, Unsplash

It’s…invigorating. Exciting.  It’s like stepping off a plane in a new place. Like seeing a mountain range in the far distance on a road trip. Like hearing the opening music of a movie. 

It’s finding a hidden doorway behind a wall.

You’re literally entering a new world.

ANYTHING can happen. And hopefully will. 🙂

How Easy Is It To Write A Great Opening Line?

As writers, sometimes your novel’s opening lines appear magically.  The muse flits by and drops them on your lap and you can barely contain your excitement: This is it!

Other times, they’re more hard-won. Or at least hard-revised. 

SassyGirls founder and Romantic Times award-winning author Devyn Quinn says opening lines are usually a placeholder for her. It’s a place to start the story, but she goes through multiple revisions as the story gains traction.

SassyGirl Review Coordinator and NYT/USA Today bestselling romance author Mona Risk agrees. She uses opening lines to hint at the main conflict in her novels, but that doesn’t mean it comes easy. She has a dozen or more versions of that crucial opening paragraph for all her books.

We work hard to make these little gems special for you.  

Livia Quinn, SassyGirls staff member & author of small town romance and quirky paranormals, says studying bestselling authors has shown her the most compelling opening lines do more than just grab your attention. They hint at what’s to come.

I’d agree.

Opening Lines Are Promises

For me as a reader, opening lines are promises.  They tease and tempt. They reveal voice & vibe & a hint of the world inside. But what they really do is raise questions. Who and what and why?

Opening lines are like a door barely inched open, spilling a shaft of light onto the floor of my mundane world. 

My GOD, I exhale, what’s in there???

Better go find out.

Image Credit: Jakob Puff, Unsplash

As a writer, my opening lines have gone both ways. I’ve had magic fairy dust, and I’ve had to apply brute force to crack that door open.

A Tale Of First Line Fairy Dust

I got fairy dust when I was writing my medieval romance, DEFIANT. 

I’d been slogging through a truly awful draft of the story.  I was uninspired. The story was uninspired.  My heroine was…ugh. My hero was MIA.  The romance was lackluster. The conflict was meh. The plot…let’s not go there.

I knew it, too, because I kept finding myself standing in front of the fridge, eyeing leftover grilled broccoli vs. ice cream. 

(Insider Tip: This is how 99% of writers discover their story isn’t working. Excessive Fridge Trips.)

Anyhow, I was bored and lost.

One day, as I left the fridge and went back to my torture chamb– I mean LAPTOP– with my carton of ice crea– I mean BROCCOLI– I detoured to Twitter of all places (!!)

An autocorrect-gone-wrong story flitted past my feed, and my mind exploded in a spiderweb of unconnected thoughts and ideas, and BOOM, there was my opening line. I could actually hear it in my head, the voice of some muse-god: 

“At first, it appeared they both wanted the same cock.”

So there you have it. Inspiration.

Because this was more than an opening line: this was my missing story.

All those problems forcing me to eat ice cream?  Yep. They were solved. The story opened up  like that door cracking open.  My whole story took off with that one line.

Ah, the power of a good cock.  Hey.  IT WAS A ROOSTER, PEOPLE. 

That’s what opening lines are, really.  Doorways into stories.  For readers and sometimes, for authors too.

Because opening lines are not only promises but little gifts, here are some opening line gifts for you. 

  • In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. (The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien)
  • Jack Torrence thought: Officious little prick. (The Shining, Stephen King)
  • “Go now. And smile for heaven’s sake,” the wedding coordinator sputtered against Roxanne’s ear. “It’s your sister’s happiest day.” (Valentine Babies, Mona Risk)
  • When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. (The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins)
  • Isn’t it just like a man to exit a relationship when he finds out a girl’s got a few little secrets? (Cry Me A River, Livia Quinn)
  • In twenty-nine years of living, I’d only let myself get spun up three times. I almost always regretted it. (Spin, Bella Love/Kris Kennedy)
  • It was the bridal party from hell.  (The Worst Best Man, Lucy Score)
  • When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. (Bel Canto, Ann Prachett)
  • Sometimes life calls for laughter and celebrating.  But sometimes life calls for a good cry and a handful of choice swear words. This was one of those moments. (Breathless, Leigh LeValle)
  • Murder, it seemed, was a lucrative as the supermodel business. (Forbidden, Elisabeth Naughton)
  • Morgan Adler’s gaze darted between the cloud of dust in her rearview mirror and the road in front of her. Two more miles. She was going to make it. (Tinderbox, Rachel Grant)
  • My husband had a talent for putting the dick in unpredictable, so I wasn’t entirely surprised to catch him at an office party with his hand up the skirt of a giggly, jiggly redhead. (Crazy Little Thing, Tracy Brogan)

Your turn! What are some of YOUR favorite first lines from books?

About Kris

USA Today bestselling author Kris Kennedy writes historical & contemporary romance. She does story consults & developmental editing, & has a free newsletter with writing tips and tricks for romance writers!

Find her website HERE.

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Readers: If you have any questions for authors–want to know where we get our ideas,  how we craft our heroes, what’s the hardest part of writing, what foods we like to raid from the fridge–ask away!  This is an open Q&A column, and I’ll do Writing Life columns to answer any & all questions you have.