When I’m scanning an Amazon preview to decide if a book is going to be worth my time, the first test is always the opening line. A sloppy, casual, or plain-Jane opening line instantly makes me suspect I’m looking at the work of an author who is an outright amateur or, at the best, someone who lacks that special “it” factor that takes prose from “all right” to “awesome.”
Similarly, closing lines are every bit as important in their own right. Even though few people will read your closing line prior to finishing the book, it is still arguably the second most important line in the entire story, right after the first line. It brings your story full circle, leaves your readers with an indelible impression of your book, and, once again, proves whether or not you’re the master of your story.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on two little lines. But no worries! There’s actually a handy little checklist you can use when figuring out how to write opening and closing lines that will stick with readers long after their initial Amazon scan. Perhaps your opening and closing lines may even end up on most-quoted lists right alongside such luminaries as Austen, Melville, and Tolstoy!
4 (and 1/2) Tips for How to Write an Opening Line That Shows Readers You’re the Boss
I carp a lot about how tough beginnings are. One of the top reasons beginnings are hard is because the entry point—the opening line—is perhaps the hardest part of all. Occasionally, lightning will strike and the perfect line will zing from the ether to your brain to your Scrivener doc. (And all the angels sing!) But for all those times when you sit down in excitement to begin your amazing new story, only to spend the first hour staring at the blinking cursor, wondering how in tarnation to find an opening line that works, here are four tips to get your started.
1. Reveal Your Story
Whenever possible tell the whole story of the novel in the first sentence.—John Irving
John Irving is famous for writing his closing line first, and that perhaps is the secret to his opening lines. When you know where the story is going, you then have the ability to craft an opening line that asks all the right questions. Your opening must do more than hook readers, it must immediately fulfill the promise of your premise’s hook and thematic question.
Naturally, this doesn’t mean spelling out the entire plot (except for when it does). What it means is that the essence of your story’s questions, its angst, its focus, and its themes should all be swimming in the subtext of your opening line. Your opening line tells readers what your story is about. Your story can be amazing, but if you fail to share that in your opening line, how are readers ever going to know?
2. Ask a Question
Everybody knows the most important job of any opening line is that of hooking readers. But how to plant that hook is somewhat less clear. Actually, all four of the tips we’re looking at here are ways of hooking readers, getting them to sit up, take notice, and say, Yes, this is a book I want to read. However, this second tip is the one most blatantly about hook-planting.
Get readers to ask a question about your story. Pique their curiosity. Tell them something in that opening line that doesn’t quite make sense. Create a sense of dichotomy, two different ideas juxtaposed against one another, creating a sense of disharmony that can range from the blatant to the ever-so-subtle subtextual. Show readers right from the start that something is amiss in paradise.
3. Be Brilliant
Long ago, writing friend Melissa Ortega made a comment about opening lines that has made her an angel on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, with every opening line I write. She said something in the vein of:
The opening line should be brilliant. If it’s not, why bother reading the rest of the book?
In short, that opening line better sparkle. This isn’t just another sentence in your story. This is the sentence. This is the one sentence, out of all your sentences, people might actually remember after they close the book. This is your one chance to be brilliant in a way that is both memorable and useful (in that, if readers like this line, then, hey, they just might read the next one!).
Avoid bland openings. Don’t open with: “The sun rose” or “Sam opened his eyes” or even “The battle raged on.” Look for color, depth, power, and specificity.
4. Create a Voice
The most important element in a story opening is your protagonist. While it may not always be possible to introduce the protagonist by name (or even pronoun) in the very first line, you want, at the very least, to immediately introduce readers to this person via the narrative voice of the opening line.
Tone, in itself, can create the kind of hooking juxtaposition we talked about in #2—and, in turn, that skillful use of irony can add just the kind of brilliance mentioned in #3. Whether your character is so on-the-nose in observing a situation that she creates her own irony for more observant readers, or whether the character is ironic enough to prove her awareness of the drama about to unfold upon her—both can be shared subtextually with readers before the character herself is ever directly mentioned.
4 1/2. Leverage Your Title
Okay, so I lied. Your opening line isn’t actually the first thing readers will read. Your title is. That means you have an extra playing piece to work to your advantage. Your first line will be read in the context of your title. Your title will become a clue that helps readers interpret your first line. This means, if you use it right, your title can create one more layer of interesting irony, theme, and curiosity within your first line.
Note how all the above titles offer insight into their first lines. If you mismatched any of these titles and their opening lines, your first impression of all these stories would change drastically. Go ahead—try it!
4 Tips for How to Write a Closing Line Readers Will Never Forget
My closing lines usually find themselves, but not before I experience several small moments of panic, wondering how I’m going to wind everything down in the final chapter and find the one perfect line that will definitively tell readers “this is THE END.” More than that, good closing lines must sum up your story (without being on the nose) and leave readers with exactly the right flavor.
1. Choose Your Best Line
The last line is as important as the first, if for different reasons. End the story on your best, or second best, line. Don’t write past it. This is the line that echoes in our mind when the story’s over.—John Dufresne
If you do it right, people will want to stop and read your last line over one more time just to savor it—and the experience of your wonderful novel as a whole.
2. Watch Your Rhythm
Unlike your opening line, your closing line will be under certain structural restraints. Like the closing notes of a song, it must guide readers to a sense that the story is, indeed, over.
In some stories, a disorientingly abrupt ending may be appropriate. But in most, you will want to ease your readers to the finale, usually with a series of longer sentences leading up to a final short sentence that puts the period on the whole book.
Although you want to maintain a tone consistent with the rest of the book’s narrative, your final lines may be the most poetic in the entire story. Certainly, nowhere else are the poetic techniques of rhythm and meter more useful.
3. Look for Symbolism, Subtext, and Irony
Your closing line is arguably the most thematic of the entire story. Although you never want to come out with an on-the-nose “moral of the story” or “this is what the story was really about”—you do want to take the opportunity to underscore the story behind the story.
But if you can’t come right out and say, “And so twoo wuv twiumphed again!”—how do you accomplish this? This is where your most powerful authorial weapons become even more valuable: symbolism, subtext, and irony. Look for thematic motifs you can pluck from earlier in the story to reinforce here at the end. Look for ways to state your thematic premise without stating it—perhaps by stating the opposite, or having characters talk around it, letting the subtextual truth hang heavy amidst the irony.
4. Answer One Question, Raise Another
The finale of your story must answer your story’s most important questions—the Dramatic Question and the Thematic Question (about your plot and theme, respectively). It must tie off all the loose ends and satisfy your readers’ burning curiosity. It must present a sense of finality.
But you don’t want too much finality. You don’t want to completely slam the door on your readers’ experience of the story. Instead, you want to leave them the sense that the story and the characters will continue to live and breathe beyond the covers of the book. Just as in life, one saga ends only so another can begin. Even as you stamp “The End” on this story, leave readers with that sense that a new story is just beginning for your characters (whether you’re planning a sequel or not).
Excellent opening and closing lines are loving touches from masterful authorial hands. They’re a sure sign their authors are aware of their stories, in control of their prose, and—as a result—very likely to be able to spin a story readers can trust in from beginning to end. In learning how to write opening and closing lines that delight readers, keep these eight (and a half) tips in mind and have fun creating something special.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you find most challenging about how to write opening and closing lines for your story? Tell me in the comments!
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