The Blog of Author Robert K. Lewis

Opening Lines.

What’s an opening line? An opening line is like being out in a night where the rain is just beating down and the wind is howling. You see a small house, the lights on. Someone is home. You hurry and knock, wanting to get inside and away from the rain. The door opens, warm light spills out, and you can smell something wonderful being cooked in the kitchen. You step inside the house, the promise of warmth and safety ahead.

That’s what an opening line is. The knocking on the door, and the door opening. The promise of good things to come.

Here’s some awesome opening lines from books that are on my nightstand:

From The Slaughterer, by Isaac Bashevis Singer:
Yoineh Meir should have become the Kolomir rabbi.

From The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler:
The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.

From The Stranger, by Ambrose Bierce:
A man stepped out of the darkness into the little illuminated circle about our failing campfire and seated himself upon a rock.

From The Bees, by Dan Chaon:
Gene’s son Frankie wakes up screaming.

And finally, from The Man With the Getaway Face, by Richard Stark:
When the bandages came off, Parker looked into the mirror at a stranger.

Now, they don’t all start with a bang, like Chaon’s opening line, but they do all have one very important thing in common: They make the reader ask why.

Why isn’t this man the rabbi like he should’ve been? Why does Frankie wake up screaming? Why is the man there, out in the woods, and why did he come and sit by the fire unannounced and unasked?

I have something I do every time I go to a bookstore, and I’m going to tell it to you in the hopes that you’ll maybe find it useful like I do. Whenever I’m in a bookstore, I walk to a shelf of fiction, usually in a genre I enjoy, and open up each novel to see what the opening line is. You really learn a lot when you do this. You start to see what works and why. What doesn’t work, and why. Give it a shot sometime. It works, trust me.

I promise.


10 responses

  1. I love that idea about reading the first lines at a bookstore! Definitely will give it a try. Great post! It’s so hard to get that perfect first line, but so important.

    01/18/2010 at 11:18 pm

  2. Thank you! This is just what I needed to read. I finished my first chapter yesterday and I liked the first line but was wondering if it would work because it wasn’t hard hitting, BUT I think it WILL make the reader ask why!

    01/18/2010 at 11:18 pm

  3. Great idea! I’ll have to give that a try. One of my favourite openers is from Farenheit 451. It was a pleasure to burn. I didn’t look it up, but I think that’s close.

    01/19/2010 at 1:44 am

  4. jmartinlibrarian

    Great minds think alike. I do that, too. In fact, I even do it when I’m shelving books in the library. That first line should promise adventure or heartache or a hundred amazing things.

    01/19/2010 at 4:03 am

    • I actually learned to do that when I worked for the public library as a library page, way long ago. That was my favorite job, too. Ever. Drove the book mobile, too.

      01/19/2010 at 6:03 pm

  5. Glad that the post helps! 🙂

    And I’m glad you think my idea might work. Give it a shot! I think it really, truly helps.

    01/19/2010 at 4:03 am

  6. I do that! I find it’s a much better indicator of what the novel will be like than the blurb. And it lets me judge whether I like the writer’s voice and want to stay with them for the duration.

    I like your point about the question. That sums it up in a nutshell.

    01/19/2010 at 8:00 am

  7. Thanks, dirtywhitecandy! Glad you enjoyed!

    01/19/2010 at 6:04 pm

  8. I love the metaphor and the examples. I will have to remember this when I edit first sentences.

    Great advice.

    01/22/2010 at 4:55 pm

  9. Hope it helps, Catwoods. 🙂

    Thanks for stopping by!

    01/23/2010 at 12:02 am

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