Crafting the opening lines of my novel frustrate, terrify and excite me all at the same time. I know those are the first words someone will read and I want them to be perfect. Words that resonate. Words that intrigue. Words that invite. As writers, we’re often told that our beginning is the hand we offer the reader. So, we knit words and phrases and re-knit them again and again in hopes that they’ll entice readers, beckon them to take a 300-page journey with us and the characters we’ve imagined.
A few years ago, I prioritized professional growth over fear of humiliation and entered the first page of my novel-in-progress in a Writers’ Idol contest. It was anonymous and my belly churned, not knowing if my manuscript excerpt would be one of the ones read. Heat crawled up my neck to my face when I heard the first words of my novel in the warm, raspy voice of the woman chosen to read each entry.
Raindrops slapped the saints, their rainbow-speckled faces pressed against the glass windows.
All three judges raised their hands to signal they would stop reading my book right there as soon as she uttered the last syllable of my first line, and it was even more mortifying that one of the judges was esteemed crime fiction author Dennis Lehane. Not even a voice bathed in honey and brandy could camouflage the stench of what I’d written. My opening line stunk like sweaty gym socks.
I was really trying to say that rain fell on the stained glass windows of the church the day of the funeral. Why didn’t I just say that? Instead, in an attempt to be writerly, I crafted a nonsensical line and got dinged publicly for it. With the distance of a couple years, I can now say I’m grateful for that experience and have thought about it the fifteen, maybe twenty times I’ve rewritten the opening to my novel-in-progress.
On some Saturday mornings, I walk through the aisles of New Fiction at Barnes & Noble and select books randomly to read the opening lines. Be forewarned that this is a dangerous hobby because well-crafted opening lines will often inspire you to empty your wallet and buy the book. That’s the whole point, I guess. Here are a few opening lines I’ve noticed in recent years that compelled me to keep reading:
Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run. – Tara Conklin, The House Girl
They partied in Pleasantville that night, from Laurentide to Demaree Lane. They unscrewed bottle tops, set the needle on a few records, left dinner dishes soaking in the sink. – Attica Locke, Pleasantville
We didn’t believe when we first heard because you know how church folk can gossip.—Brit Bennett, The Mothers
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. – Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You
Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8 ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat. – Dennis Lehane, Until Gwen
I wish I’d written each of them. What those opening lines have in common is they each leave a question in my mind. They tell me enough, but not too much. I’m curious. I’m anxious to learn more, to know what happened and what will happen next. Our beginnings set the tone for the reader’s experience with our work, a signal that she’s in the capable hands of a masterful storyteller.
That thrill of anticipation running under my skin when I read the opening of a new book is what I want readers to feel someday when they read my novel. I’m sure that’s your goal, too. So, we return to revision mode once again to make sure that opening is exactly right.
Nancy E. Johnson is a senior communications leader with an Emmy-nominated, award-winning journalism background. She contributed to O, the Oprah Magazine which published her personal essay in the November 2015 issue. Nancy serves as secretary for Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter and was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s 2016 Rising Star Contest. When she’s not reading, writing or pontificating about politics, she’s running and eating chocolate, sometimes at the same time. The Chicago native is writing her first novel.