Do you struggle to find a starting point for your novel? To write a great opening line that hooks reader? Do you find that you only really find your rhythm by the third chapter? Maybe you feel you’re starting your story at the wrong place?
Many writers focus heavily on world-building at the start of their story. And while this is fine, we’ve all read to page fifty of a novel and realized — well, nothing’s really happened yet, should I keep reading?
And how many of us have given up reading a book, watching a film, or reading a play because nothing seems to be happening? Realistically, we’ve all been there, but we’ve also read books that are page-turners from the get-go.
This article is about finding the right starting point for your story, ensuring that your next piece of work is a page-turner and not a dusty relic that haunts your bookshelf. We’ll help you consider WHERE to start, assisting you on the journey to finding that elusive great opening line.
Ready? Let’s go.
Great Opening Lines In Fiction
When I was studying for my MA, my teaching assistant gave the class an exercise:
“I want you to write the opening of a play using the starting line: it’s over.”
There was a stony silence while my classmates and I pondered. How could we simply START a story? We needed more details. We had no given circumstances. Or characters, locations, or objectives.
“Don’t think about it. Just start it!” she barked in frustration.
Slightly affronted at the sheer gall of being asked to write outside of our comfort zone, we obediently put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and started to write.
And I wrote a play that went on to be shortlisted for the BBC Alfred Bradley Bursary Award. It burst out of me because I was starting from a point of action.
Obviously, I didn’t write it all in one go. But I’d been given a starting point. And from there, I’d found characters who wanted something, with a problem to overcome.
And that was all I needed.
Finding a starting point
It’s over. It’s a brilliant exercise because it necessitates a key device: getting in late. When you get in late to the story, your audience is swiftly sucked into your world. If the action has already started, we follow the protagonist as they pursue an objective, and this helps us learn about the story’s world along the way.
- When our character jumps on a hoverboard, we realize we’re in the future.
- If they jump on a horse-drawn carriage, we get a good sense of the era.
- If they call each other “brethren” or “comrade,” we understand something about the sociopolitical environment. Maybe they’re part of a cult?
When you find the right starting point, there’s no need to fill the first chapter with world-building because information is dramatically inert.
Sure, it’s good to build the world that your characters reside in because you want your readers to picture their lives and the actions you’ve created.
- Throw us into the action by drip-feeding flashes of character.
- Drop in clues about the world, allowing us to figure out where we are.
- Provide glimpses of characters’ objectives.
And we create a much more satisfying reading experience.
The tensions are about to pop
The late, great Tony Craze, the one-time AD of Soho Theatre, once said:
“Start your story where the tensions are about to pop.”
His suggestion was that you raise the curtain IN the action. Today is the day that the protagonist will finally do the thing that will change the world forever. Not in the morning; not in the car on the way there. Open your story when they’re just about to say:
And we’re instantly presented with a world of intrigue. The opening line offers a plethora of questions:
- Why is it over?
- What is over?
- Who are they talking to?
- What’s happened to get them to this point?
A great opening line should be born of tension. Allude to the central question of the piece right from the get-go.
Sudden, simple, and surprising
A great opening line should grab a reader’s attention — save the backstory and descriptive content for later. Kickstart the story and hook the reader with a simple line that enters the action suddenly.
For example, Annabel Pitcher’s novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, starts with:
“My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. Well, some of her does.”
This is a surprising opening line — simple and succinct, posing many questions. We presume, perhaps, that Rose is dead, and her ashes are sitting in an urn.
But what happened to get her there, and where is the rest of her?
Jump into the action with dialogue
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the bouncer said, folding his arms across his massive chest.
Cassandra Clare’s novel, City of Bones, thrusts us into the midst of conflict with this opening line, creating the promise of speedy escalation. The conflict increases as the dialogue continues with:
“You can’t bring that thing in here.”
- What is “that thing”?
- Why does the holder of “that thing” want to get past the bouncer?
- And what do they want beyond the doors that the bouncer is steadfastly protecting?
Presenting your reader with conflict from the start is exciting — willing us to continue reading. Of course, whatever comes next must keep us gripped: focus on tension and question-building rather than world-building.
Throw us into the action
Opening your novel or short story with a character DOING something encourages us to keep reading.
Consider Clare Furniss’s opening line from How Not to Disappear:
“I’m spinning, round and round, my arms held out, head thrown back towards the pale spring sun.”
We open with movement (spinning), reinforced with repetition (round and round). We want to know:
- Why is she spinning?
- Is she enjoying it?
- Or is she trapped on a speedboat going wildly out of control?
There are hints that this is a joyful moment: the pathetic fallacy of the “pale spring sun” suggests promise and positivity. But if it was “head catapulted towards the angry, imposing storm clouds,” it offers something altogether more sinister.
This opening line gives us a sense of time — it’s the spring — and, perhaps, the time of day (the sun is pale).
Thrust us into a place
Sometimes, it can be good to present us with a sense of location in your great opening line.
Sally Gardner’s I Coriander opens with:
“It is night, and our old house by the river is finally quiet.”
We’re immediately presented with atmospheric imagery: an old house in the dark. But there’s a sense of intrigue posed by the river:
- What was happening before the river fell silent?
- Why (and how) is it finally quiet?
- And what happens now that it’s finally quiet?
Perhaps we picture an old wooden house in the countryside? Maybe this all feels very sinister and isolated?
But then the second sentence, however, subverts these expectations, revealing more about the actual location:
Only the gentle lapping of the Thames can be heard outside my window.
Now, we’re thrust into the heart of London, giving us an identifiable sense of location. We know we’re in safe hands on the page here — the writer has skillfully hooked us into the story by presenting questions that intrigue us from the opening line.
I’ve only got 1000 words!
I teach a university playwriting course, and — for their first assignment — we give our students only 1000 words to create a great opener for a more extended play. Many of my burgeoning playwrights feel stumped by the limited word count; they ask what the heck they can achieve in 1000 words.
And then I present them with the first 1000 words of a range of published plays that throw us knee-deep into the action while achieving a staggering amount within a very short word count.
For example, by the end of the first 1000 words of Lungs by Duncan Macmillan, the couple has worked through a freakout in IKEA, addressed an existential crisis, and decided to have a baby (even though the planet is dying and it can’t survive yet another human being!).
And the opening line?
W A baby?
W A baby?
We know what this piece is about from the very start. But, of course, we have no idea where it is heading dramatically.
How to hook your reader with a great opening line
So, the next time you sit down to start your story, jump into the action. Your opening line is an opportunity to create intrigue, hook readers, and pose questions that readers desperately want the answers to.
Start from the midst of the action, thrust us into a surprising location, and present us with conflict through dialogue.
And try the “it’s over” exercise. We’d love to know where it takes you!
Harry Wallett is the Founder and Managing Director of Relay Publishing. Combining his entrepreneurial background with a love of great stories, Harry founded Relay in 2013 as a fresh way to create books and for writers to earn a living from their work. Since then, Relay has sold 3+ million copies and worked with 100s of writers on bestselling titles such as Defending Innocence, The Alveria Dragon Akademy Series and Rancher’s Family Christmas.
Harry oversees the creative direction of the company, and works to develop a supportive collaborative environment for the Relay team to thrive within in order to fulfill our mission to create unputdownable books.
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