You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover, But You Can by Its Opening Line

I’ve been thinking a lot about opening lines/sentences. Mostly because I’m supposed to have another installment in my serial fiction posted by Monday at the latest (my own deadline), and I can’t seem to find a way to start it. I know what’s going to happen but damned if I can fill that blank page. (So I know that technically this isn’t considered an opening line as it is a continuation, but for someone who might stumble upon it at some point, it is crucial that they want to go back and read the previous installments.)

The opening line is so important because every other word hangs on it. It’s got to be strong, evocative, surprising, and a whole host of other adjectives every writer knows and dreads. Not only do those first few words carry the weight of the entire piece on its shoulders (if it had any), but they are also the basis for our audience’s approval. How many times have you gone into a bookstore, picked up a random book because you liked the cover art, read the first sentence, and put it back down again? Granted, some of us may read the first few sentences and then do that, but really, it’s that first one that strikes an impression.

Maybe in that nano-second it takes to read the first few words strung together into a cohesive (or sometimes not) thought, your subconscious decides whether it’s worth reading a little more, which you do, only to be disappointed by the drivel that comes next. Now you have the added agony of trying to top that first line in everything else you write. (Writers are experts at self-torture in so many ways.)

As I was walking into hospital yesterday, an opening sentence just popped into my brain. (That is how it usually works–don’t try to create one on your own, don’t try to coax, threaten, wrangle, bribe, or even beg those first words into existence. It won’t work. We are masochists [spell check told me this wasn’t a word, but I don’t care] not sadists.)

Here it is: When the MRI tech asked if I was claustrophobic, I told her no because I’d been locked in a coffin before.

If I was to analyze this sentence, here’s what I would say: First, I would want to know two things: 1) what was the speaker getting an MRI of and why? what had happened leading up to this event? 2) how the hell did the speaker get locked in a coffin? Would I want to read more? Sure, but that’s just because I’m a sucker for the word “coffin.”

I can tell you with some certainty that I will not be writing a story based on this sentence anytime soon or otherwise, but I can guarantee that if I were, it would not be about vampires, zombies, or wrongfully-pronounced dead people. No, it would have to be something much more spectacular.

Surprise! The opening line should not give away the rest of the story, but merely hint at the wonders to come. (Ok, I’m going to be cliché now and say this is called the hook.)

If you’re a writer and have managed to capture anything on the page, look at your opening sentence (or line if you’re a poet). Does it live up to the same standards you use when evaluating other writers’ works? If it doesn’t, never fear. Until that sucker gets published, there’s always room for improvement. And sometimes you may have to get to the end of your piece before you find just the right way to begin it.