I don’t know what tipped me off that something was wrong. Maybe it was the toaster sprouting mechanical wings. Maybe it was the dinner plates hurling themselves through the air straight at my face. Or maybe it was the guys in suits growing four extra robot legs out of nowhere.

Intrigued? I hope so, because today’s blog is all about the opening line. The hook. The tagline. The headline.

Or, as I like to call it, editor-bait.

See, when an editor receives a manuscript, he or she does pretty much the same thing we do in a bookstore to decide whether to read more of the story or put it back on the shelf/in the shredder and move on to something more interesting.  But since they don’t have a bright, beautiful cover illustration or a back cover/book jacket synopses to help them along like we do, the one thing they do have is that much more vital to us, the hopeful writers waiting in the wings:

That is the first line.

So yeah… it’s important. Not only for your readers, but to get any decent number of readers in the first place. No matter how exciting and intriguing and amazing your book might be, if it starts lame, it stays lame, because the reader isn’t going to make it to the awesome part anyway.

I spent a lot of time yesterday working on my new opening line to The Crows’ Nest, because I realized two things that somehow had escaped me before being rejected by Holiday House. (In case you hadn’t figured that out by my last two blogs… oi. Sorry about my bout of emo-ness…)  One, my old opening line was pretty lame, and two, Trevor wasn’t as well-rounded a character as he needed to be.

Of course, I had a little help figuring out the latter — at least Holiday House was nice enough to tell me why they rejected me: “Your protagonist wasn’t as appealing as we had hoped”. So I knew there was something wrong with Trevor, and by God I was going to fix him if it killed me!

Back to the keyboard I went.

“But wait Ms. Marshall”, you might be saying to your monitor or smart phone or other sundry gadget you use in reading this, “isn’t this blog about the opening line? Where does character development fit in?” Well, besides the fact that I can’t hear you when you talk to yourself like that, I would hope that you noticed the voice in which today’s title is written. Go ahead and re-read it. I’ll wait.

Yeah. Now you see. It’s first person. That’s Trevor talking to you, in his own voice.

See, an opening line has to hook the reader, yes, but it also has another very important job: it has to introduce the reader to someone that they’re going to care about enough to follow through the entire story. I wrote a blog not too long ago about Voice in which I said, perhaps prematurely, that I would be using third person almost exclusively… or something like that, I don’t remember my exact words. Anyway, whatever. The point is, I changed my mind (ain’t it great that we’re all allowed to do that?) and decided to rewrite The Crows’ Nest in first person and take myself entirely out of it. After all, no matter how I try, my own voice is that of a middle-aged mother of five, and what kid wants to read that?

Ahem. My point? I’m getting to that.

I said before that my original opening line was lame. For anyone who hasn’t read it already and/or has forgotten it (which is understandable), this is how The Crows’ Nest used to begin:

When Trevor found the momnapper’s note taped to his front door after school, he didn’t think much of it.

Now, you might be saying that’s a pretty good opening line. I certainly thought so! But here’s what’s wrong with it, from a more clinical perspective: it says nothing at all important about Trevor himself. Sure, the reader sees right away that this Trevor kid doesn’t care about his mom being kidnapped, but that’s not exactly codusive to them liking him, is it? At best, the reader is thinking of Trevor as some random kid they know nothing of import about; at the very worst, they’re thinking he’s a pretty callous brat. Not a great way to introduce a hero, methinks. At least, not to middle readers.

But now the reader is introduced to the plot and the MC from the very beginning. A win-win for any opening line. <~~ My point, ladies and gentlemen! *Bows*

What about you? How do you plan your opening line? Do you have any tips to share? What are some of your favorites from other writers and why?

Now, I’m off to discuss research methods for scholarly writing in my Elements of Scholarship class. I’ll be back to have more fun with you all soon!

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2 Responses to “I don’t know what tipped me off that something was wrong. Maybe it was the toaster sprouting mechanical wings. Maybe it was the dinner plates hurling themselves through the air straight at my face. Or maybe it was the guys in suits growing four extra robot legs out of nowhere.”

  1. I badly need to work on this, my stories have the most boring first lines ever! Thanks for the tips 🙂

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