by Darcy Pattison
In my book, START YOUR NOVEL, I list twelve ways to start novels and give examples from the top 100 opening lines of all times. Here, I’ve updated the examples by looking at the top 10 books from the USA TODAY Top selling books for week ending August 9, 2013, and how they open their stories.
The possible types of openings include these:
- It was/It is/This is
- Viewpoint on Life
- Spoken word or Dialogue
- Let’s meet Jack and Jill
- Let’s meet Joe, my friend
- I AM
- Misleading lines
- Alternative media
- Screenplay or graphic novel format
Let’s see what the top contemporary writers used to open their stories.
Ranked #1: Burn by Maya Banks
“Mia, the doorman just buzzed to say a car is here for you,” Caroline called from the other room.
Some stories start by jumping into dialogue, usually an ongoing scene. The risk with this opening is that the reader may not care enough for the characters yet. The best of these set up the story, as well. Here, we are introduced to two characters, and a hint of a setting.
Ranked #2: Mistress by James Patterson and David Ellis
Let’s see what she has in her medicine cabinet.
One thing I emphasize in using these categories of opening lines is that sometimes it is difficult to categorize an opening. In the end, I don’t care if you get the category right, as long as you learn from the example. In this first-person opening, it could be a mid-action opening or a more generic set-up, depending on what comes next.
Starting Mid-Action pulls the reader into an ongoing scene and gets things going quickly. Here, the implication is that the narrator will open the medicine cabinet and find something. If you’d rather call it a Set-up opening, it sets up what is about to happen in the story. Or, you could even call it, Let’s Meet Joe, my Friend, because we’re about to find out something about a secondary character. In fact, this line accomplishes a lot in the way of setting, establishing the curiosity of the narrator, and setting up the secondary character—in just nine words.
Ranked #3: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
Though Robin Ellacott’s twenty-five years of life had seen their moments of drama and incident, she had never before woken up in the certain knowledge that she would remember the coming day for as long as she lived.
Let’s Meet Jack/Jill
The specific introduction here to the main character is a typical Let’s Meet Jack/Jill type of opening. We meet 25-year-old Robin on a specific day that will change her life.
Ranked #4: High Heat by Lee Child
The man was over thirty, Reacher thought, and solid, and hot, obviously.
Let’s Meet Jack/Jill
We are actually meeting the narrator, Jack Reacher, along with a secondary character that is described through Reacher’s point of view. Notice the point at which you start to really pay attention: “. . .hot, obviously.” Opening sentences with zingers of some sort are more likely to catch a reader’s attention. It doesn’t have to be much, just something to pique interest.
Ranked #5: Inferno by Dan Brown
(There is a 3-line poem first, so I skipped to the first line of the story.)
Along the banks of the river Arno, I scramble, breathless. . . turning left onto Via dei Castellani, making my way northward, huddling in the shadows of the Uffizi.
This is obviously a story that begins with Mid-Action, but it’s also combines nicely with a Landscape approach, so that we know something of the specific setting right away.
Ranked #6: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the bouncer said, folding his arms across his massive chest.
As with HEAT above, this story starts with dialogue. Again, we know something of character and setting, even from this brief sentence.
Ranked #7: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
This navel-gazing opening for a first-person story introduces a character in their own words and gives us information about the character’s view of themselves.
Ranked #8: Zealot by Reza Aslan
The war with Rome begins not with a clang of swords but with the lick of a dagger drawn from an assassin’s cloak.
Need a flexible opening? Begin by setting up something that will happen later in the story. It can be almost anything as long as the opening sentence pulls the reader deeper into the story. Here, we find out that an assassin will be involved in the story.
Ranked #9: The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
It was all because of the Berlin Wall.
It was/it is/this is
This type opening allows a writer freedom and flexibility because anything can come after these words: abstract images, a synopsis, a setting, etc. To a reader this signals authority. Be careful with this one to avoid clichés and the make the last part of the sentence meaningful. Here, the reader wonders how this romance could be connected to the Berlin Wall, of all things.
Ranked #10 The Inn at Rose Harbor by Debbie Macomber
Last night I dreamed of Paul.
In this Set-Up opening, we learn that the main character dreams about a specific man. Part of the goal of an opening is to make clear to the reader what type story they will get in this novel. Here, it is relationships. Though we know little else, it is clear that there is a first-person narrator who is involved with a certain man.
This collection of opening lines varied from six words to fifty-two words. Besides the different strategies for opening a novel, notice that each has a unique voice. There’s no confusing John Green’s opening with Debbie Macomber’s. The voice of each story signals that each writer has confidence in his or her story and will deliver a powerful story.
If you are stuck and can’t decide on how to open it, try each of the possible ways to open your story, and then go with the one that has the strongest voice. That’s the way to pull readers into your story.
About the Author
Author, blogger, writing teacher, and indie publisher, Darcy Pattison has books in eight languages. She travels the U. S. teaching a novel revision retreat using her workbook, NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS: Uncommon Ways to Revise and her latest how-to book, Start Your Novel : Six Winning Steps Toward a Compelling Opening Line, Scene and Chapter. Other ebooks for writers include How to Write a Children’s Picture Book and The Book Trailer Manual.
Recent nature books for children include: WISDOM, THE MIDWAY ALBATROSS (Mims House), first place winner in the Children’s Picture Book category of the 2013 Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards, and a Starred Review in Publisher’s Weekly; DESERT BATHS (Sylvan Dell), an NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book 2013; and PRAIRIE STORMS (Sylvan Dell). Darcy Pattison is the 2007 recipient of Arkansas Governor’s Arts Awards for her work in Children’s Literature.
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