Back to Basics, part VIII: Opening Lines


Continuing the “Back to Basics” series, I would like to use today’s post to focus on the opening lines of our novels. Yes, I know:  I’m not exactly moving in order here; rather, I’m jumping around a bit, talking about research, submissions, writing to a certain length, etc.  To be honest, I’m choosing my topics week to week, essentially on a whim.  I also realize that opening lines is not exactly a new topic; we’ve touched on this before.  And we will again, I’m sure.  But today I would like to try talking about book and story openings in a slightly different way.  I can never tell if using examples from my own work helps or not, but that’s what I’m going to do here.  Hopefully they’ll serve as illustrations for what I’m trying to convey.

Let me begin with a confession:  I obsess over the first lines of my books.  I spend more time on those first few paragraphs than I do on just about any others in the book.  Part of this is simply wanting to get it right, wanting those initial lines to be as close to perfect as possible.  But part of it as well, is that I am often searching for the right voice for the new project.  I don’t spend less time on subsequent sections of the book because I care less about them, but rather because I am, at that later point, more comfortable with the book, more familiar with the tone and with the personalities of my characters.  For that reason, I often go back and rework the opening pages after the rest of the book is done.  Why not write the opening pages last?  I know some people who do just that.  I can’t.  Too compulsive.  I have to have something written in my first chapter before I can move on to the next.  But that’s just me.  If you can work in a non-linear way, then yes, writing the opening last might work very well.

I think we can all agree on at least one of the things our opening lines are supposed to do.  We want a book or story opening to grab hold of our readers and refuse to let go.  We want it to make the reader say “Wow!  I want to read more of this right now!”  But there are so many ways to achieve that end.  And so I would say that we also want our opening lines to introduce our book as accurately as possible.  It needs to tell our readers something about what they can expect.  Sure, it’s great to have lots of action in those opening pages.  But if we’re writing a cozy, a car chase ending in a shootout with massive explosions might not be our best bet . . .  Sometimes I try for excitement in those first pages.  Sometimes I try for intriguing, even strange.  There are different ways to draw in our readers, and which I choose is largely a function of what kind of book I’m writing and what I need to accomplish in my early chapters.

For instance, here is the opening paragraph of the first Thieftaker book (due out a little less than a year from now, in early May 2012):

Ethan Kaille eased his knife from the leather sheath on his belt as he approached Griffin’s Wharf, the words of a warding spell on his lips.  He had sweated through his linen shirt, and nearly through his waistcoat, as well.  His leg ached and he was breathing hard, gasping greedily at the warm, heavy air hanging over Boston on this August eve.  But he had chased Daniel Folter this far — from the Town Dock to Purchase Street, over cobblestone and dirt, past storefronts and homes and pastures empty save for crows and grazing cows — and he wasn’t about to let the lad escape him now.

I start with Ethan, my lead character, and by the time you’re done with the first sentence you know that he is the kind of man who carries a blade and casts magical spells.  This is a character driven series, and so I wanted to introduce him first thing.  It’s also a historical, and you see that in sentence two, when I describe his garb.  The third sentence puts us in Boston.  The fourth does more to ground us in time and setting and also establishes the action that will drive the rest of the scene.  There is tension in the scene and the promise of more to come.  But there is also information that lets my readers know immediately what kind of book they can expect.

Here are the opening graphs of the second Thieftaker:

He heard the man’s footsteps first, boot heels clicking loudly on the cobblestone street leading toward Clarke’s Shipyard.  A moment later, Tanner came into view, a bulky shadow against the faint, distant glow of the comfortable homes of Boston’s North End.  He walked swiftly, his hands buried in his pockets.  Occasionally he glanced back over his shoulder.

The man passed Ethan Kaille without noticing him, though Ethan stood just off the lane, so close that he could have grabbed Tanner’s arm as he hurried by.  With the concealment spell Ethan had placed on himself a few minutes earlier he could have planted himself in the middle of the street and Tanner would have walked into him before realizing he was there.  Still, Ethan breathed into the crook of his arm, so as not to give himself away with a puff vapor in the cool autumn air.

Notice that this passage does much the same thing as the first one I showed.  We know quickly that Ethan can do magic, that he is watching a mysterious man, that we are in Boston at a time when the streets were cobblestone, that it is fall.  I hint at the action to come, but I also fill in a lot of information.  The Thieftaker books are stand alone mysteries, and I want my readers to be able to start the series anywhere along the way.  So my openings will all seek to do similar things, but, I hope, without seeming repetitive.

What about a different type of book.  Here are the opening sentences from the book I’m working on now:

Two drops of blood.  One on the bottom stair, glistening on the brick, red on red.  The other on the cement landing by the front door.

They were small; it would have been so easy to miss them, to walk past them and into the house without noticing.  But having seen them, she couldn’t look away, and she couldn’t take another step.

She stood rooted to the walkway, a paper sack filled with groceries cradled in one arm, an oversized bottle of Australian Shiraz in the other hand, her bag slung over her shoulder.  And she stared at the blood.

This is a contemporary urban fantasy, and while the POV character here is one who will play a huge role in the story, I want her to remain slightly shadowed for the time-being (never mind why 🙂 ).  I also don’t start in with the magic right away.  I let that happen gradually, too, in part because my other POV character doesn’t do magic, doesn’t even believe it exists.  I give enough information that you can tell this is happening in today’s world.  Other than that, though, I focus on exactly what my character is focused on:  the blood, and the mystery of where it might be from.  It is jarring, shocking even, out of place.  It has that impact on my character, and hopefully it will make my reader want to read on.

My last example is quite different from the others.  It is from the second volume of another contemporary urban fantasy series (the first volume has not yet been published).  It is written from the perspective of a crazy man, the father of my protagonist, actually.  Here, I am not looking to inform my readers, but rather to intrigue them, to draw them into the story with imagery and all that it implies.  It is meant to be disjointed, and yet also compelling.  To be honest, I don’t know if it works, because up until now, no one other me has ever read it:

It burns and burns and burns, a pain he can’t salve, a fire he can’t extinguish.  White, yellow, red, orange, white.  Shades of pale blue sometimes, but then white again.  Always white.  White hot.  Pure white.  White for wedding gowns and babies’ diapers and clean sheets on a crib.  White.  Like blank paper.  And then it burns, again.  Brown giving way to black, which comes from the yellow and orange and red and pale blue; flame creeping like spilled blood, spreading like a stain.

The land rolls downward from his chair, baked and dry, burning and empty.  But also full, if only one knows how to look at it.  The rising swirls of red dirt.  Red-tailed hawks turning on splayed wings.  Jack rabbits and coyotes, watchful and tense, death and survival hanging between them.

There are hints here — the pain he feels burning inside him is tied to family:  wedding dresses, diapers, crib sheets.  He lives at the edge of a desert, and sees in that landscape a reflection of the tragedy that has touched his own life.  But other than that, we don’t know much.  Hopefully, though, readers will want to read on.  The book revolves around a mystery that involves this man and his violent past, but since his mind is muddled, so are the hints I am giving my readers.  To some degree I want them scrambling to keep up, at least at first.

All of these openings have certain things in common, but aside from the first two Thieftaker passages, they are also distinct from one another.  Different books, different types of stories — different openings.  There are as many ways to reach out and grab a reader as there are stories to tell.  The old “There is no right way to do this” disclaimer is especially true here.  Your opening lines are going to be as unique and personal as the books you’re writing.  I can’t tell you how to write the first pages.  Yes, you want to engage your readers, but there are so many ways to do that:  shock them, excite them, intrigue them, make them laugh.  Or try some combination of these.  Make certain though that your opening is representative of the rest of your book.  And look for ways to begin informing your readers of the important things they need to know, at least for the first chapters.

So, who has an opening to share with the group?  No more than 100 words or so, please.

David B. Coe

45 comments to Back to Basics, part VIII: Opening Lines

  • Cool openings, David: nicely evocative of the books they kick off. Here’s how WILL POWER opens. It’s the second in a series so it’s as much a reminder as a true opening, and its job is to try to (re)establish the voice/character:

    Far be it from me to blow my own trumpet, but I was about to become a bit of a legend. We had been lying around Stavis mulling over our triumphs in Shale three weeks ago like a family of pythons that had recently gorged on a rather less fortunate family of gazelles, or whatever the hell pythons eat. Now we were going to see a little excitement. I had, I must say, been quite happy doing the python thing, but sleeping late and producing no more than bodily excretions for a whole month had started to wear a bit thin even for me. The others had, of course, tired of it rather earlier.

  • All good openings, David. I’m particularly intrigued by the yet-to-be-published one with the crazy man. Very evocative opening that makes me want to read on and find out what the heck is going on! Here’s my opening from the book I’m shopping around, The Way of the Black Beast:

    Malja licked the bloodlust grit from her teeth. The familiar, rust flavor of an impending fight lay heavy on her tongue. She had followed the killer for hours, hiding amongst the shadows of the forest pines and birches. Though he acted casual as if out for a stroll, she knew their confrontation neared — all her instincts told her so.

  • Julia

    I enjoyed the post, David — I’m really looking forward to the Thieftaker books!

    While I write the first draft, I do my best to leave the opening alone, lest I never make it to the end of the book. But in revisions, I tinker with the first chapter obsessively.

    Here’s the opening paragraph of SYMPHONY IN MIST, the WIP whose revisions I’m finishing:

    Alverai ran silently through the birch grove, breathing in the music. The cadence of the trees surrounded him, their slender harmonies drawing him into the night. Small birch leaves trembled in the breeze, a light arpeggio of sound. Alverai ran the wild grounds of Soledad with his eyes closed. His gift allowed him to hear the living connections of the world as if they were music. Gift unfurled, the path unfolded in his mind like a melody. The gentle tremolo of the birches rose above the rest of the forest, against the crescendo of hills. Foot struck ground, lifted and struck again. His pace was steady, the ground beneath his feet a bass anchor in the night.

  • Great topic, David. I used to treat openings exactly as I treated the rest of my writing, focusing on putting together some good clean words, but that was about it. About five novels ago, though, I really started to focus on finding the *right* words, the perfect glimpse at the book to come. I think it makes a huge difference in my writing – and it definitely has made an impact on how I *read* books. (I tend to walk away from books much sooner than I did, if the opening is not strong.)

    Here’s the opening of FRIGHT COURT, my online, reader-supported serial (about which I’ll be writing more, later this week):

    As I watched Judge Robert DuBois drink a steaming glass of blood, I realized that my new job wasn’t going to be the usual nine to five.

    This couldn’t be happening to me. I couldn’t be sitting in the courtroom for the District of Columbia Night Court, watching an actual vampire devour a midnight snack. I couldn’t be staring at suddenly-apparent fangs, at jet-black eyes in a whey-pale face, at a cruel and commanding supernatural jurist, where a mousy human judge had sat mere moments before.

    It looked like my dream job, Court Clerk for the District of Columbia Night Court, was going to leave a little something to be desired.

  • That last opening makes me wonder if the character in question is a synesthete, the way the feeling of pain is associated with a spectrum of colors. That was definitely an interesting and intriguing way to start. (And if the character is a synesthete, I’d find that something unique to read about. Since I first learned about the condition, I’ve been curious about what the world must be like to such people… Hmmm…. Maybe I ought to give that idea a whirl, myself.)

    I don’t have a current WIP ready yet (I’m still in an early phase on my current novel project). I’m a little apprehensive about sharing this, but what the heck, here’s the opening of my almost award-winning novelette “People for the Ethical Treatment of Dragons”:

    “Dragons are an endangered species. They have been since the Act, back in ’73. 35 years of protected status has not improved their disposition, and most people still take issue with the burned crops, pillaged livestock, and living in fear. That’s where I come in.”

  • Fresh from the press of my mind…. No setup wince I want your unaltereed first impressions. 🙂


    The walls moaned. Araceli laughed. The walls were white and clean, pure. Araceli was neither. She laughed at her impurity. Shame. Worthlessness. The electric light above flickered.

    “Why do I laugh?” a small voice inside her head asked. “I shuold cry.”

    “Why?” she shouted aloud. “Because crying doesn’t work!”

    The doorlock jingled jangled with a metallic mock of her laughter. It was too early for food. The door opened and a guerny rolled in with squeaky haste, more laughter to mock her pain. Everywhere was laughter.

    Two hairy men came forward and grabbed her by the arms. She cried. It was just like before. Just give in, it will be over soon.

  • A.J., as I think I’ve told you before, the voice for the Will books is as unique and engaging as any I’ve encountered in our field. This opening does a wonderful job of reestablishing it right off the bat. And since that voice is, in many ways, the defining characteristic of the books, that’s exactly what the opening ought to do. I hope we all get a chance to read more Will books at some point. I enjoyed both of them.

    Stuart, thanks. I hope that last book of mine sees its way into print eventually. As one of the lucky ones who has gotten to read your book, I can say that this opening does a great job of introducing your main character and the book’s primary themes. I like that you begin with taste — something few authors do, and fewer still do well.

    Thank you, Julia. I love the music motif that runs through this opening. It’s a great way to introduce your magic system and what I’m assuming is an important theme of the entire book. If I can offer one small critique, I would say that you might want to eliminate two of the three instances of the word “birch”. I would get rid of the first one (running through a grove is enough for the first sentence) and the second one (perhaps touch on the color of the leaves instead of the species of tree. If it’s fall, Birth leaves are yellow; in the spring a soft, pale green — either way, color or shape would be more descriptive than “birch”). The third instance is the one to keep, I think, and it works very nicely — “…the gentle tremolo of the birches” Just lovely.

    Mindy, I love this. Great way to set the tone for the book. It gives us a sense of plot, lots of information, but most importantly it establishes the narrator’s voice with a dry, engaging wit. Can’t wait to read more.

    Stephen, thanks. Given that I had to look up “synesthete” in the dictionary upon reading your comment, I have to admit that it wasn’t my intention to make him one. But maybe he already was one without my knowing it…. I’m intrigued by the opening of your novelette. It has a noire feel to it that works very nicely especially when juxtaposed by the focus on dragons. Very cool.

    Mark, this is haunting. Opening in the POV of a character who is, it seems, in a mental institution, is intriguing, risky (in a good way) and certainly makes me want to know more. I really like the other sounds that mimic her laughter, emphasizing her madness. Well done. A couple of things that didn’t work for me (and they’re so tiny; but this is why I obsess over openings): one was the small voice in her head. I would cut “Why do I laugh?” and just have her saying to herself “I should be crying.” That conveys all you need it to. The second was the word “Because”. You don’t need it; I would cut it.

  • englishpixie

    I totally agree with you about openings – the first few lines can sell a book to somebody standing in the shop thinking about whether they want to buy it or not. And getting it right sets the tone for the reader better than the next ten thousand words ever could.

    Here’s one of my favourite openers for my project Jack of All Trades:


    There was a sliver of moon in his eye like a silver fingernail, and Kostya looked at it in the mirror carefully for a moment before touching his eyelid gently upwards and drawing it out, placing it in the water in the basin so he could inspect it from different angles, his breath gusting ripples across the liquid surface. “You can still see the round of the moon behind it,” he murmured to himself, and wrote it down on the scrappy piece of onion-skin paper beside the basin with a pencil he had made himself out of an old piece of charcoal, scavenged from his mother’s fireplace and rolled up in a rag to keep his fingers clean. “It’s waning, so… endings… intuition, divination. The banishing of magic.” He looked at the moon he had captured in his basin and sighed, leaning closer to peer at it with one eye, until it was almost too close to see clearly. “I don’t see what you have to do with anything.” And he swiped his hand through the water and scattered it on the wooden floor, discarding the moon’s reflection as he padded back to bed.

  • Here’s the opening from Knightspelle, the current WIP that Sarah and I are shopping around (Urban Fantasy in the Winter Court).

    Deor scanned the Thames, her stomach lurching at each approaching boat, but no ferryman was in sight. The air, cold and damp, tickled her nose. She sneezed. Silver sparkles erupted around her, filling the air. She sneezed again, adding to the flurry. She flailed at the falling sparkles as if shooing away gnats. Her gaze darted up and down the riverwalk, but no one batted an eye.
    A raven wheeled overhead, out across the water and back, disappearing behind the walls of the Tower. Her new department chair had said the ferry came hourly this close to the start of school. She also said the crossing was easy.

  • Julia

    Thank you, David! Very helpful suggestion… I went for “slender leaves” in the second instance, since the scene is set at night and I’m not sure the color would come through. Thanks again.

    I’m glad you like the music! It’s central to the book (magic system, conflict, etc), as well as to my character’s perceptions and sense of self, so I wanted to ground the reader in it from the very start.

  • I’m always a sucker for a good opening. I also sort obsess over my openings. I always try for something that I would be pulled in by if I picked it up off a shelf. Sometimes they will just come to me, but usually I end up going back and refining the first couple paragraphs several times before I’m even remotely happy with them.

    David, your UF hooked me right away. After that, I would be forced to keep going to find out what was going to be in the house when she entered. Hope it gets picked up when it’s finished. 😀

    An opening is something I liken to a roller coaster. They always give you that climb to give you the anticipation of the ride to come. Sometimes mine start with a bang, sometimes with intrigue to make a reader sit up and take notice, but I always try to hook as fast as possible.

    I’ve posted Rogue 5’s opening sentence before, but I’ll do again, just because it’s changed since the first incarnation. Rogue 5 starts with action, in the thick of things, basically.

    *Servos whined and jet retros flared as Ahlia Jensen’s Battle Suit pirouetted in a dizzying one-eighty, tracking the Palantine class Suit as it blasted by across the star-field patterned backdrop of space.*

    I found myself working on something else recently when a sentence popped into my head one night, a voice that wanted a story told, a voice pulled from my recent life issues. It’s going to be a dark book, I think. Sorry, this one’s the first paragraph and it’s a rough.

    *It was black the last time I saw it, but I suppose it could be any color by now. You see, it runs from white to black, depending on who possesses it. And if you have it, may the Gods have mercy on you. When I last encountered it, it was as black as a starless night and seemed to absorb any light that was luckless enough to touch it. The darkest corner of Hell cannot compete with it and if those shadows could quake upon seeing it, they would. It is the vilest thing I have ever had the misfortune to encounter and the last place I saw it was in the hands of my best friend. I know this because that’s the day I was forced to kill him.*

  • E.P., thanks for sharing that. I like the opening lines, and know that I would be utterly fascinated with this as a reader. I love the notion of being able to remove a vision from one’s eye and examine it. That would make birdwatching so much easier…. Seriously, very cool concept and nice opening graphs.

    Emily, the sparkly sneezes are wonderful, and I like the tone of the writing, as well as the introduction of tension from the outset. Kudos to you and Sarah.

    Glad to help, Julia. It was a small criticism — the rest of the passage is excellent and very intriguing (which is probably why I noticed the recurrence of the word; everything else worked so well).

    Daniel, thanks. I’m hoping this UF will draw some interest when the time comes. I like the Rogue 5 opening. I’m fascinated by the new one. Very dark, yes. But wow. That last line is a kicker, and will totally draw in your readers. Yes, it might need a little tightening, but it’s good, and I like the fact that you’ve taken your issues and turned them into your art. Well done.

  • Thank you for taking the time to read through my opening, David. I feel a lot better about it now. It is the start of a major rewrite of my WIP and I worried about getting it right.

  • englishpixie

    Thank you very much! I really liked the UF opener, by the way. Can I make a suggestion for your current project opener? (Though feel free to totally ignore me!) I think it would be even better if there was a physical action in the first paragraph, like him clapping a hand to his eye or clawing at his mouth, something brief to tie us in physically to his pain as well as mentally. I feel like it would ground the paragraph more in this being a flesh-and-blood human being in this burning mind.

    As ever with these things, your mileage may vary, and you’re a much more experienced writer than I am. But that’s what I’d do 🙂

  • BillSmith

    Here’s the opening to my WIP:

    Luke surveyed the city rooftops and streets, using his nethersight to search for his quarry. A flicker of movement caught his eye. Quickly glancing in the direction he thought he had saw it, he found what he was looking for. A squat shadow moving swiftly down a nearby alleyway. Luke jumped from the tower to the cathedral roof below, running in the direction of his target. He leaped from rooftop to rooftop, a shadow in the moonlight, quickly closing the distance. That goblin was as good as his.

  • I obsess over my opening lines, too. I need the hook, not just to capture readers, but to capture my own imagination for the story. Until I get that hook, I can’t write the story.

    Here’s the opening for my current WiP:

    I took stock of my injuries. I hadn’t been on the job a month and I had fourteen bruises, a concussion, multiple cuts and abrasions, a broken arm, and now, a gunshot wound. Being a Tooth Fairy shouldn’t be this hard.

  • Always fun to obsess over openings with a group of writers. Here’s mine from the current WIP (a YA novel):

    Mary Katherine Heartston snapped the reins of her horse and galloped to the front of the small caravan, her wyrmskin cape flowing over her slender shoulders and into the air behind her. She rode past a large wagon full of supplies; past the smaller wagon full of her father’s stupid books; past the group of horse-soldiers clustered behind her father, all the way to the head of the line. She didn’t want to be riding next to her father – truth to be told, she didn’t want to be anywhere near him – but as they reached the top of the mountain pass, the urge to see home had overtaken everything else.

  • Razziecat

    First lines are magic to me: When they’re right, they light the spark that ignites the story for me, and the words begin to flow. I love all your opening lines there, David, but the one with the blood really speaks to me: That’s exactly how I would react!

    Here’s the beginning of a long-ish short story I’m currently wrestling with (an experiment in first person):

    Becoming a gargoyle was easy. Escaping the magus was not.

    I never thought my own magic would betray me. The spell was meant to captivate Uziel’s daughter, sulky Tourmaline with her grass-green eyes. I was fifteen, brash and besotted. Magic was a game, Tourmaline the prize, I the axis on which the world spun. How foolish it all seems now.

  • Great post, David – and fascinating intros, everyone! I want to read them all!

    This is the intro paragraph to an older WIP that ran into the (I have no idea where this is going!) stall-factor:

    The boy knew he was a slave. Slave children are born knowing that sort of thing. He had always known, it seemed, that you don’t make too much noise when you play in the dirt behind the sheds. And it went without saying that you were silent whenever a Master was around. Of course, you never, ever left the kennel unless someone took you out; and most important of all, you never spoke to anyone that didn’t have the distinctive scar on the forehead that marked them a slave. These were things he knew, just as he knew he was a slave. But it wasn’t until he was five that he began to understand what being a slave meant.

  • Mark, my pleasure as always. Best of luck with it.

    EP, thanks for the suggestion. I’ll think about that when I go back to the project (I’m actually writing the “blood” book now). He is a sedentary character, and much happens in his mind. But tying the perceptions to the physical more might be a good idea — if not action, at least sensation. Thanks for making me think about it in a different way!

    Bill, thanks for sharing this passage with us. I like the action, the evocative imagery. Two things I would consider changing. 1) I would change this sentence “Quickly glancing in the direction he thought he had saw it, he found what he was looking for.” to this “Quickly glancing that way, he found what he was looking for.” The rest is clearly implied. This makes it flow better. Second, I love the shadow imagery when he sees the goblin, but the second shadow sentence has him suddenly outside of himself, seeing his own movement. It’s a point of view issue and it detracts from an otherwise nice scene. I would rephrase it in a way that keeps the reader in your character’s head. Otherwise, very nicely done.

    Suzy, I love the tag line at the end. Great stuff. VERY interesting. It would definitely hook me.

    Edmund, that’s a terrific opening — so much conveyed about your character and her relationship with her father. And, of course, wonderfully written.

    Razz, thank you. The UF with the “blood” opening is giving me fits and I can’t tell if I’ve gotten any of it right. Nice to know that at least the first two graphs work. I like the opening, and think you do a nice job of introducing an interesting, compelling voice for your narrator. I also think that you’ve got the first line of your book pitch in the first line of your book. “Becoming a gargoyle was easy. Escaping the magus was not.” I did a “Give us Your Pitch” panel with Brandon Sanderson at JordanCon a few weeks ago, and he would have loved that as the first line of the pitch.

    Lyn, thank you! I hope that eventually you’ll have the opportunity to read every one of them in print. I like your opening — the concepts you introduce are interesting and hold out the promise of a fascinating character and storyline. I think that the prose could be tightened. For instance, the word “slave” recurs five times in that one paragraph. Clearly it’s the key concept for all that follows, but I think that it can be conveyed in a tighter way. “The boy knew he was a slave. It seemed that he had been born with the instincts necessary to survive his servitude. He had always known not to make too much noise when playing in the dirt behind the sheds. He knew to keep silent whenever a Master was around. Of course, he never, ever left the kennel unless someone took him out. And most important, he never spoke to anyone who didn’t bear the tell-tale forehead scar marking them as chattel. These were things he knew, just as he knew his name. But it wasn’t until he was five that he began to understand what it meant to be a slave.” This is a few words shorter, and is just one way you might change the wording a bit. Obviously, it might not convey what you want it to, in which case disregard it. But I do think that you could make what you have a little less wordy and a little less repetitive.

  • Lyn, At the risk of hijacking David’s post, I have to say I like your opening very much. I hope you figure out where the story is going, because I’d very happily buy and read the rest of this book if I found it in a bookstore.

  • Not that I disagree with David about tightening things up–he’s absolutely correct–but in the big picture I like where you’re heading.

  • Alan Kellogg

    Joining in the fun…

    “The cockatrice strutted behind the rows of offerings to his prospective mate. When one of them started to twitch he tapped it with his large rending talon, at which point it stilled again and he went on preening and posing.

    “She considered the tendered gifts, and the high stepping male, with a considering eye. She had rejected suitor after suitor before this, but this one had a certain something none of the others had shown. Or maybe ovulation had progressed to the point she’d consider a one legged cripple with lumbago.

    “With a near Gallic shrug of her shoulders, she flicked her tail, gave a low croon, and started the first steps of the age old cockatrice mating dance.

    “He looked at her with some surprise—for he was not yet into his full display—and with a small amount of trepidation joined her in the dance. Across the street from the pack one resident of the local neighborhood started noting in a pocket notebook what he’d need to deal with a flock of baby cockatrices.

  • Alan Kellogg

    Correct: Across from the park

  • David – thanks for the suggestions; I’ll consider them carefully when I get around to working on this one again. I guess I need to quit being such a panster and actually consider preplanning and plotting….*sigh*

    Edmund – thanks for the kind words. I love the characters, the concept, and the magical system of this world. Now, if I can just figure out what great ‘thing’ needs to be overcome….

  • Razziecat

    David, thanks for your comments. I’ve been unsure about using first person, but this character first spoke to me that way & it seems to work best in his case. This particular WIP was supposed to be a short story, but I think ultimately it will end up novella-length at least.

  • Lyn, thanks for the comment, and it’s great that Edmund likes your opening, too. The guy knows this business pretty well. If he likes it, you’re definitely on the right track.

    Alan, fun, interesting stuff (I’m a birder, so I’m a sucker for this sort of thing). Nice opening, good use of humor. Yeah, I’d keep reading.

    Razz, my pleasure. Best of luck with it.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Cool article, David. I liked the drops of blood opening particularly…mainly because of the woman stopping to look at them, I think.

    My WIP opens:

    Once upon a time there was a young woman named Victoria Woods, who never did anything the way everybody else did. While others ran for their lives or grimly prepared to fight, she withdrew all her savings, booked a ticket to California, and went in search of an imaginary man.

  • Unicorn

    I’m very late, but I’m so dreadful with openings…
    This is the second-draft opening of my WIP:

    The first unicorn galloped on the space between the stars, a legend in flesh and blood. He ran with the joyous ease and spirit of a wildfire and the grace of a mighty horse. He ran on the boundaries between worlds, shifting and flashing from one world to the next. And here, now, quick as a comet, he spun and danced for a moment on a sunbeam, its golden light burnishing his glowing white coat. He paused, his long mane wild with running, nostrils flared and sweat breaking on his neck. Looking down, he watched the world. In this world, they called him Modena. It was his world.

    I think the second sentence should go, and maybe the third, as well. I adore this character because he is full of contradictions. He has a lot of the stereotypical unicorn attributes – the white body, the golden horn, the power of flight, the lonesome mysteriousness – but throughout the story I’ve tried to make him more of an animal, something that bleeds, something you can identify with. Hence “… nostrils flared and sweat breaking on his neck.” He’s also fierce. He kills things. He’s very interesting to write.
    Wow, these are all most intriguing openings. I want to read them! All of them!
    Thank you for an interesting post and great comments.

  • I’m pretty late to the party, too (I’ve been traveling). Very neat openings! #3 really grabs me. I want to know more about the blood and why she freezes. As for the crazy man in #4, that really works with the colours and the repetition. Very reminiscent of someone with Aspberger’s.

    I completely agree, figuring out the opening lines seems to be a key to capturing the tone of entire work. Which gets me thinking about previous projects, and what may have been wrong …

    Anyway, I’ve started working on edits now, since I have this week off for writing and I haven’t really touched the first half of my WIP in months. Here’s what I have right now:

    Someone approaches, the winds tell me. A rider.

    They have been with me my whole life, these winds—or at least for as long as it has mattered. Warm northern breezes swirl through the cedars, greeting me fondly the moment I leave Porden on the afternoon of my seventeenth birthday, the first day of Midsummer. They linger as the day wears on. Had I a skirt, they might gust that about, but landmaidens are practical women, and not even Mother wears anything but breeches unless there is cause.

    Silently I welcome the winds in return. Although I may journey for the next year and a day by myself, at least I will not travel alone.

    Thanks for another sharing opportunity!

  • @Mark Wise: Wow… that’s a really strong opening, I think. I agree with some of David’s suggestions for improvement, but this is a pretty powerful opening and catches me right away.

    @DavidBCoe: Glad you think this works; that’s pretty much the exact feeling I’m going for. It’s meant to be darkly humorous. Some day I hope to do something with this story, but for now it’s kind of in the trunk… I like it a lot but it being a novelette, I’ve had trouble finding a home for it.

  • Jagi, thanks. That seems to be the opening everyone liked best. Which is good, since it’s the book I’m working on now. I LOVE your opening, and would absolutely buy the book were I to read that first line in a bookstore. Thanks for joining in!

    Unicorn, that is a beautiful opening. Lovely imagery, almost poetic in the way it’s presented. As I’ve pointed out in a few other instances, the one thing to watch for is the repetition of certain words or phrases in the opening graph. In this case, the word “world” or “worlds” occurs 5 times in the single paragraph. I think you could tighten the writing without actually eliminating any full sentences (I can’t see a sentence there that I would cut entirely — each works and adds something to the passage). But you’re off to a good start with this. Lovely work.

    Laura, I like that very much. The opening introduces the winds concept right off, allowing your reader immediate access to what I assume is an important element of your magic system. You also tell us a good deal about your POV character and about the traditions of your world. I like it. The one thing that confused me slightly was the way you open the issue of clothing. I can see wanting to establish her as a landmaiden and tell us a bit of what that means, but I think you need to work on that transition a bit more to make it flow with the winds theme. Right now it feels slightly contrived. There’s a way to introduce the garb — I’m not suggesting that you remove the reference, but just that you smooth the transition. Otherwise, very well done.

    Stephen, it may be that as you work on it more, the idea will morph into something larger, or you’ll find a way to cut it down to a more easily marketed format (short story instead of novelette). But either way, you have a promising work.

  • Unicorn

    David, thank you. I tried to write that opening four or five times before I was satisfied enough to go on to the rest of the story. One issue I have is that the unicorn, Modena, is not my POV character, but he’s always drifting in and out of the story, he has a plot twist of his own, and the story ends as well as begins with him so I really like the feeling of coming full circle. I do tend to repeat words over and over so thank you for picking up all the “worlds”, I would never have spotted that. Tighten the writing – I need to focus on that throughout my stories, because I tend to go on and on about nothing. Thanks for looking at it.

  • My pleasure, Unicorn. If I had been as good a writer at your age as you are, I would have started my writing career years earlier. You’re doing great; keep it up.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Sorry. I’m super late to this party, but it’s so reassuring to see all of the different styles of openings you’ve presented. Thank you. I’ve tried all sorts of different openings for my WIP, and I’ve finally got one that I’m pretty pleased with – enough that I get encouraged for the rest of my revisions when I re-read it. (though some of the phrasing is still a bit awkward.) Sorry, it’s a 125 words instead of 100:

    ***The air was hot and thick and tasted oppressively of road dust and the stinking yellow smoke of the grass fires that clouded out the world in all directions. With each breath, that smoke burned into Greydog’s lungs and filled up his mind with memories he’d long hoped he’d forgotten. Again he felt his hands crack and sting beneath blisters and the rake, his back bent under a fool’s will, his feet blackening. Again he watched the land burn. And now the fool rode less than a dozen wagons back, hailed quietly by some as one of their last enduring hopes, while Rubion Greydog walked in the dust and the wagon ruts, escorting, perhaps, real hope down this long road to the city of Holdingfast.***

    The chapter this opens still makes me a little nervous because this is NOT one of the main POV characters (though one shows up right at the end), and the setting is unusual to the rest of the story, but I REALLY wanted a chance to give a broader outside perspective on the world/situation without info-dumping, and I think this character is best suited to that…

    Again, thanks for all your examples. I’m definitely looking forward to checking out your Thieftaker books!

  • BillSmith

    Thanks David. The second instance of shadow was supposed to showcase an aspect of his magic, but I see what you mean about detracting. Luckily it was an easy rewrite.

    Also, forget to say in first comment, all of your openings make me want to keep reading, especially the last one.

  • Hep, thanks for playing along. I think that using a character in the opening who is not the main POV character can be very effective for just the reasons you give here. It can offer context, give your reader a sense of what’s at stake in the chapters to come. As long as it’s relevant to the story and gives readers a sense of what’s coming, I think it’s fine. I like this passage, although I would give his full name at the first instance of his name, and use only his surname at the second. A very small thing, I know, but this way struck me as awkward when I read it through. I also might edit down the first sentence to remove one or two of the three instances of “and”. But I like it a lot.

    Bill, glad the rewrite was easy. And thanks for the kind words.

  • JER

    Hello everyone. I’m new to the site so this is my first post. Here is the opening of my current WIPs prelude.

    He ran, more scared than he had ever been. David was a hunter, a killer, and a vampire but now something even more terrifying than him was after him. He was a Rasmussen, the demon breed, the kind that became monstrous when they “vamped” and now that he was afraid he couldn’t control it. His deformed face and extended fangs were like a beacon warding off anyone that may have helped him.
    Fear. He never thought he would feel it again. Now it coursed through his veins as if he were alive. He knew his hunter could smell it but he couldn’t hide it. No one who had been hunted by whatever followed him ever survived to tell the tale.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for your comments. I agree it’s weird doing only surname first and full name second. I think the flow of words seemed to want it that way when I first wrote it, but I’ll keep that comment in mind. Maybe the next edit pass will agree better with conventional sensibilities. Thanks again.

  • Jer, welcome to the site! Glad to see you here. Thanks for sharing this passage with us. It’s an intriguing opening, one that would definitely make me curious about the rest of the book — and that is the point after all. I think that a little editing would make what you’ve got here even more effective. Little things, like a tightening of the second sentence: “David was a hunter, a killer, a vampire; but now something even more terrifying pursued him.” Just a suggestion of course — it’s your piece, not mine. But I think similar edits throughout would make a very compelling opening even more fast-paced and frightening. Again, many thanks for joining us. Looking forward to seeing more of your comments in the days and weeks to come.

    Hep, yeah, what I was suggesting is more conventional, and that might be a reason NOT to do it. But my first reaching upon reading it was to pause and think about it, which is not necessarily what you want. As I said, though, I liked the passage a lot.

  • Thank you, David. This is perfect timing because I’m starting the edits right now, and the clothing reference is a relic. It’s a line that I’ve kept from the very original draft (eep, three and a half years ago, possibly longer) and because it’s been there from the start, I’ve left it there and glossed over it when reading or editing. I don’t need to reference her clothing right away. It seemed important at the time I wrote it, but isn’t anymore. I’m going to keep an eye out for any other such relics. They can be stumbling blocks.

  • David, I am just now home and got the chance to read this. It is wonderful and so are all the book openings. I am so sorry I was gone and missed all the fun. Makes me ready to write!

  • Glad to help, Laura.

    Thanks, Faith. Welcome back. Hope you had a fun and productive weekend.

  • ajp88

    May be far too late but oh well.

    Shéa dropped to the ground, her long wavy red hair and matching skirts catching in the breeze as she fell. She was finally alone, her only company the flowing hills like so many waves and the summer sun, high and warm. Her worries of the day were swept away by the cool breeze.

  • […] Back to Basics, part VIII: Opening Lines | Writing Fantasy. […]