Today’s act of spontaneity sent me to my bookshelves to examine the opening lines of some of my favorite books. I’ve read other writers’ analyses of opening lines and their subsequent conclusions about what makes an effective opening, but I had not conducted my own study—not properly, anyway. I set about changing that tonight.
I focused my attention on books that fit into the broad category of speculative fiction since I favor that kind of writing. I selected two dystopian novels and two MG/YA fantasy novels:
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
- Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey
- The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Their opening lines are as follows:
“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.” –The Handmaid’s Tale
“The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored.” –Station Eleven
“Micah’s breath scraped in and out of his lungs; his feet were clodded with road-mud.” –Skin Hunger
“There was a hand in the dark, and it held a knife.” –The Graveyard Book
Looking at these lines together, I noticed four key commonalities.
1. They raise a question (or several).
The opening line of The Handmaid’s Tale prompts the reader to ask what has changed in order for the narrator to sleep in the gym. Has there been a war? Has housing been destroyed?
Station Eleven raises questions about “the king”—a real king?—and Skin Hunger causes the reader to question why Micah is gasping for breath and covered in mud. Is he running? Why?
The Graveyard Book raises questions about the knife—and the hand holding it.
The questions can only be answered by reading on.
2. They give a visual and a basic sense of setting.
Gymnasium. Blue light. Muddy road. The dark and—gasp—a knife.
3. They reference an event that influences the trajectory of the book.
This should be a no-brainer, right? Of course the opening line of a book should reference a key event—the inciting incident, even. No one wants to read about Joe making toast on an average day weeks before the action starts.
Still, this is worth mentioning because I hadn’t realized just how clever these authors had been until I examined the lines.
Atwood slips the gymnasium into the very first sentence, immediately bringing up the Red Center—the place where a handmaid’s journey starts.
St. John Mandel takes us to moments right before the outbreak, and by the end of the book, we realize that the “king” was more significant than we thought. (Sorry. No spoilers here. Go read the book!)
Duey and Gaiman show us the moments that change the protagonists’ lives right at or shortly after their births.
4. Their syntax is direct.
This escaped my notice the first few times I read these lines, but then it became clear: All of them lead with an independent clause rather than a front-heavy dependent clause.
This reminded me of my journalism studies; ledes should be punchy and straight to the point. Oddly enough, though, I never made the connection between opening lines and ledes until now.
There’s so much pressure to put your best writing in an opening line, so it can be tempting to show off with all the clauses and punctuation you can possibly cram down the sentence’s throat. That’s counterproductive. Such sentences are a burden to read, and readers may opt to cut their losses before they even begin.
These authors knew that.
Admittedly, these four points don’t hold true for all books. I also picked up J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Both seemed to prioritize establishing a distinctive voice and introducing direct address of the reader.
Still, generalized or not, these observations give me valuable insight as I polish the opening pages of my WIP.
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