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Monday, July 31, 2006

It was the best of lines, it was the worst of lines: Writing Compelling Opening Lines

Evil Editor is doing rewrites of story openers, and I'm having a good time reading his revisions. He's not just tweaking; he's totally rewriting. And 9 times out of 10, his versions are MUCH shorter. Interesting!

Anyway, Evil's blog, along with a question someone posted on the Divas, made me start thinking about opening lines.

We all know they're UBER important. They're supposed to:

-snare the reader by raising some compelling questions
-give a hint of the conflict
-tell the reader something about the character
-set the tone/mood of the story

OY. That's a lot to ask from one little sentence.

So, outside of making it a bazillion words long (which I've been known to do, LOL), how does one go about writing a single sentence that does all that?

I admit, I tend to open with narrative instead of dialogue. And it tends to be "telling" rather than "showing". You read some articles on opening lines, and they'll tell you that's a BIG no-no.


The Crabby Cows say dialogue is a bad way to open a story too.

I say do what works, as long as it does all of the above. In writing, there are very few set-in-stone rules, thank God! So far, no reviewer, agent or editor has slapped my wrist, shrieking "Telling, tellinnnnnnng!"

Once you escape the realm of RWA chapter contests, some things aren't as important anymore.

Let's take a look at a few of my opening lines and see how they measure up:

First sample (from Mark of the Beast)
ā€œIā€™m an idiot.ā€ [NOTE: IT'S A DIALOGUE OPENER] Abby Clumm threw down her useless cell phone, wrapped the quilt tighter around her shoulders then hefted the shotgun up to take aim at the front door.

I'd say I've raised a few questions here. Like, why is she aiming a gun at the door?

Conflict? Well...(hey, give me a break, I didn't do this exercise AS I wrote this. I'm doing it after the fact *g*). We're seeing a woman who has no means of communicating and is facing some kind of dangerous situation. I'd say there's some conflict there. Ya think?

The characterization? She's calling herself an idiot. That says something about her.

The mood/tone? I've set up an expectation that this story is going to be suspenseful, which it is.

Whew! Made it through that one. LOL

Should we try one more?

This one's from Sex and the Single Ghost, and it's short:

Being dead has its advantages.

Questions raised? Check. How the heck could being dead be a good thing?

Conflict? This one's perhaps a little ambiguous, but it's there.

Characterization? Check. We're seeing someone who's able to look for the good in any situation.

Mood/tone? Check. The tone is light and comedic, certainly not dark or gloomy.

Anyone want to post an opening line from their wip? Or perhaps a favorite from a published novel?

For kicks, here's an opening line quiz. Can you name the book each of these famous opening lines came from?
Encarta Quiz

And HERE is's 100 best opening lines.

Om the other side of the spectrum, there's the infamous Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a contest challenging authors to write the very WORST opening line.

And finally, HERE is a list of the top 15 WORST romance novel opening lines.

posted by Tawny Taylor at 9:51 AM |


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