Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 32: Boring Opening Lines

Opening lines are an art form unto themselves. They must introduce a story’s tone, the author’s wit, the plot itself, and, most importantly, a reason why this story is worth the readers’ time. Boring opening lines aren’t something an author can afford. And yet they’re harder to avoid than you might think.

The problem is that opening lines must also be entirely functional. Where do we begin our stories? At the beginning. And where do most stories begin? Rather ordinarily, with a character who has his feet on the ground and doesn’t know that ground is about to be swept out from under him. We have to open in a comparative normal world. We have to make setting, character, and stakes clear to readers. In other words, we have to be straightforward, right?

Sometimes. But your second paragraph will give you plenty of time for all that. Your first concern in writing an opening line is hooking readers. And the only way to hook them is to make them curious.

Let’s take a look at some standard types of boring opening lines and what we can do to flip them around into something fascinating.

The Weather Line

Boring Opening Line: “It was a bright and sunny day.”

Problem: Snorezilla. Granted, this sounds like a normal world just waiting to get taken down by a tragedy. But for the time being there’s nothing interesting about it. Perfection is never interesting. At least Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “It was a dark and stormy night” gave us some interesting atmosphere.

Better Opening Line: “It was a bright and sunny day, just the kind of day I was supposed to die in.”

The Setting Line

Boring Opening Line: “The grocery store was busy today.”

Problem: This line does have a slight advantage over the previous one, since it offers a teensy hint that maybe something is out of kilter in this world. Why, after all, is the grocery store’s busyness more notable on this day than any other day? Still, with a dull opener like that, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to read on and discover there isn’t anything notable about this day.

Better Opening Line: “The grocery store was awfully busy for a ghost town.”

The Character Line

Boring Opening Line: “Jenna had just turned thirteen.”

Problem: Good for Jenna. Bad for readers. Kids turn thirteen all the time. Why is Jenna so special? Without a hint of why Jenna or her thirteenth year are so important, readers aren’t going to be very impressed.

Better Opening Line: “Jenna had just turned thirteen the day the planet exploded.”

The General Statement Line

Boring Opening Line: “Around here, strawberries don’t ripen until late spring.”

Problem: The only thing this opening line is making me want is a ripe strawberry. It’s certainly not making me want to read on. Readers either already know when strawberries are ripe, or they don’t care. What they care about is having their curiosity piqued, and common facts (or, worse, clichés) just aren’t very piquant.

Better Opening Line: “Around here, strawberries don’t ripen until late spring—but the Magic Wars had changed all that.”

The Dialogue Line

Boring Opening Line: “Hi, Steve. You got a second?”

Problem: This is a bad way to open a fictional conversation period. As an opening, a line like this is even more abysmal. We can only hope the caller has some scintillating reason to rob Steve of his second, but, honestly, this reader is a long way from convinced.

Better Opening Line: “Hi, Steve. Just wanted to tell you I killed your mother-in-law.”

The Key to Non-Boring Opening Lines

Are you seeing the common factor in all the boring lines and the common factor in all the “better” lines? The boring lines fail to invite readers deeper in the story world. The improved lines, on the other hand, all create a jarring note that makes readers stop, think What—?, and read on to figure out what’s happening.

The opening line should be a puzzle piece that makes readers need to figure out the larger picture of which it’s a part. The opening line needs to make them curious. Why? Because curious readers are putty in your hands.

The Exception to the Rule

Now that you’re all pumped to go out and write a killer opening line, let me back you up a step by saying that maybe you don’t have to. Not all first lines are scintillating or curiosity-inducing in themselves. “John was a good dad” may be a perfectly acceptable opening line if it’s followed by a killer second line: “At least that’s what all his imaginary kids said.”

Sometimes you’re going to use an on-the-nose first line to set up the punch in your second line. But you can’t afford to wait much longer than that to offer readers the hook. If they get past that first paragraph without needing to do a double take, they may decide to put your book down and go after those fresh strawberries instead.

Tell me your opinion: How do you avoid writing boring opening lines?

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 32: Boring Opening Lines

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Lots of food for thought here. You have me wondering about the opening line to my last novel. It goes, “He nearly missed the sign as the car drove past.” I will definitely be thinking about this more.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This line isn’t bad by any means. You’ll get readers wondering what’s on the sign. Just make sure to follow it up by having the sign *be* something interesting.

    • i like what you’re going for. i sometimes like to use the failed action for an opener. it makes (at least, i hope) the reader ask why the mc didn’t or couldn’t do this and so. i guess the main thing is i try to get an opening line that raises questions. in fact, i work on the opening and the closing months before i write the first draft since they are so hard to get perfect and they have to be perfect or the rest doesn’t matter

  2. Morné Fouché says:

    “Snorezilla” – Awesome word choice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, possibly my favorite part of this post. :p

    • Shirley Richey says:

      Agreed. I loved the word and the article. I have researched opening lines for some time and your less effective examples turned into effective examples really drove the message home for me. Thank you!

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Glad the post was useful for you! These examples were especially fun to come up with.

  3. Good, thought-provoking topic. I hope my opening lines are never dull. But they take refining. You’ll rarely get it right right out of the box, and usually I think you have to get a good feel for your story before you know what the right opening line is for it. Coming back and reworking that opening scene after you’ve written the story is crucial. Sometimes you’ll have a good feel by the midpoint, but for best results, editing again and again are key.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very true. Good opening lines almost always reflect character voice, and sometimes we have to work our way up to finding that.

  4. The advice is pretty spot on and I love the wit in this post, it cracked me up. Opening lines are so much fun! I have a story idea about a teenage mind reader that I don’t plan on writing for awhile, but I love my opening line for it: “I know what you’re thinking, but I won’t tell since I respect your privacy.” It could be split into two sentences as well but I love the idea either way.

  5. This is one of those topics I like to research. I love the examples you gave because they show you that your first line doesn’t have to be something to tear your hair out over. You make it look so effortless. 🙂

    I also found an article on Writer’s Digest .com by Brian Klems called “7 Ways to Create a Killer Opening Line for Your Novel” very helpful and I wonder what your thoughts are on it.

    Thanks for another great blog, KM.

  6. thomas h cullen says:

    To read The Representative’s opening line is to perceive likely just having read it’s finishing one…….like the rest of the text, it’s a kind of opening never before experienced.

    The words. The format……like so much of the rest of the text, its pages sole lines of literature acting as stories unto themselves, this opening of ones speaks of something altogether profound.

    And yet, this even being the case…….it absolutely has nothing on the text’s closing line.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I always like it when opening and closing lines can come full circle.

      • then you should love finnegan’s wake

      • thomas h cullen says:

        You’ve just vindicated me, Katie…..it was the most pleasing, reading that reply of yours:

        The term “full circle” itself is part of The Representative’s very opening line.

        Speaks of something, altogether profound doesn’t it?

    • thomas, could you give is that opening line? and how about the closing line while you’re at it

      • thomas h cullen says:

        Hi Neal – thank you.

        Definitely, the first I will. The last I’ll keep however close to my chest – being completely sincere, it’s beauty’s too pure and everlasting not to have been read in sequential order with the rest of the text.

        After writing it – I’d felt as much as it’s possible for a human being to ever feel.

        • thomas h cullen says:

          “It now has indeed, come finally………..full circle.”

          That’s it, Neal: like the rest of Croyan and Mariel’s presentation, The Representative – original, and sincere.

          And final.

  7. scott amis says:

    Have we come to the point where people have such short attention spans that they won’t bother reading past a first line?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s not so much that they have short attention spans as they have limited time. If a writer nails an opening, then his odds for writing a great book are better – and readers have better odds of not wasting their time on a less-than-great book.

  8. I really like this post because it made the process very clear.
    I agree with others that openings lines are easier to write after the book is finished. I rewrote mine some 20 times 🙁

    But I have noticed something, especially on the workshop I’m a member of. Some writers try so hard to have a killer opening line, that that same line then seem to kill the rest of the opening. I mean, it shows. You see the writer choses that line, that choise of words for the exact purpose of hooking the reader and in some cases it doesn’t even flows well with the rest. I’ve seen this happening even when the opening incident works perfectly fine.

    So I think that, in addition to having a brillinat opening line, we should also be careful to balance that line with the rest of the opening incident. Sometimes it may even be better to pare the first line down rather than unbalance the whole opening.

    Just my thought.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a great (and really important) insight. As much as we want our openings to hook readers, they absolutely *cannot* lie to readers. Whatever that first line promises, the rest of the story must fulfill.

  9. Di Hooson says:

    I’ve been reading the section of your book on the Hook and how important it is to get this right. I’ve certainly had my eyes opened and thoughts expanded as to “hooking” a reader in and keeping them interested. It’s not an easy task and until I came to commit this sentence to print I didn’t realise the blood, sweat and tears I would shed to hone a sentence I would be happy with. I think I’m there now and I am happy that it meets with the character, conflict and setting criteria.
    Thank you for your books, this website and mentioning John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story.

  10. Really lovely post. I will point out, however, that some great opening lines don’t become apparent until you’ve absorbed the rest of the text. One of my favorite examples of this is from Watership Down: “The primroses were over.” which seems rather bland until you start unpacking the text and recognize the vicious world these characters inhabit. Definitely no primroses for these bunnies!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s been so long since I’ve read Watership Down that I don’t remember the rest of the first paragraph, but I bet Adams follows up with some strong second and third lines.

      • “The primroses were over. Toward the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s mercury and oak-tree roots. On the other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit holes. In places the grass was gone altogether and everywhere there were clusters of dry droppings, through which nothing but ragwort would grow.”

        It’s pretty bucolic and ordinary; only on my second or third reading of the book did the delicious irony of that opening line hit me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any way disputing the main thrust of your post…just that for every rule there will be intriguing exceptions.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Oh, yes, there’s an exception to every rule! And I am huge fan of stories that bury things so deep they don’t become evident until the second or third readings. This obviously worked out fantabulously for Adams, but I wouldn’t generally recommend going for major subtlety in the opener.

  11. One of the best novels I’ve ever worked with, The Understory by Elizabeth Leiknes, featured a character who remembers the first line of every novel, but never the last. On one hand, that trait allowed the novel to include a great set of all-time classic first lines, but on the other hand, it pretty much meant the author had to come up with a brilliant first line herself.

    Fortunately, she delivered: “There once was a woman named Story Easton who couldn’t decide if she should kill herself or eat a double cheeseburger.”

  12. I try write something outside the ordinary and that demands curiosity. My current WIP begins with the engraving on a gravestone.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That out-of-the-ordinary element is a great thing to hunt for. The jarring sensation of something being out of place can be a great way to pique reader curiosity.

  13. Precious says:

    I really like your post. I’m currently working on a novel and i’m wondering, does this opening line hook you? Or do you think i should change it up a bit?
    “I’ve had this dream on the night of each birthday for as long as I can remember, but it’s different this year. It’s been recurring for exactly seven nights now…”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In general, I’m always wary of opening with dreams. It’s usually better to get readers right into the action of the “now.” That said, assuming your character’s dream is interesting, immediate, and directly influences the plot, I would suggest hinting at its significance in the opener. What about the dream makes it so important, unsettling, or fascinating?

      • Precious says:

        The dream is basically the backbone of the plot, it is what creates the conflict for the protagonist.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          In that case, I would recommend tweaking the opening line to give readers insight (and curiosity) into why the dream is out of place and important.

          • Hi again. Okay i’m wondering if this is better…
            “Seven days after i turned seventeen, i found myself standing in the middle of a forest fire.”

  14. Amy Vitt says:

    Opening lines just give the author such an opportunity to highlight what is epic about a story before the real work (for author and reader) begins. I frequently pluck books off shelves at the store, read only the first line, and immediately replace them if they don’t intrigue me. I mean, author, that is your MOMENT! Don’t waste it with a weather report!

    My favorite first line of mine, from a fanfic I wrote as a teenager: “I can’t remember the name of the blonde who is leaning on my arm.”

    It’s a straight lead-in to the character’s normal world of womanizing, shallow interaction, and disconnection with true empathy for others, and it also stems directly from his lie- he is not capable or worthy of meaningful relationships.

    And all before I found your blog! I love how reading these posts helps me to understand what I did RIGHT before I studied any form of plot technique, and the myriad things I did WRONG. It’s easy to tell when something’s off in your story or another’s, much harder to understand WHY. Thanks again! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great point! We should totally be thinking of our opening lines as our opportunity to encapsulate everything that’s special about our stories.

  15. C.E.Dillon says:

    My first lines are “some people cling to life like a precious gem, to be squandered, yet never truly valued.” it sound kinda boring, but I works, the story, or if you prefer to start at chapter 1, instead of the prologue” a bolt of lightning struck the ground”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When dealing with prologues, we have the double challenge of having to create *two* scintillating opening lines. Both lines have to hook readers just as surely because readers are, in essence, having to begin the book twice – once in the prologue and once in the first chapter.

  16. This may seem like a silly concern, but what if your opening line is actually two lines? Does it still work the same way? I have what I would consider a very catchy opening line but it’s actually two sentences rather than one. They go hand in hand and I believe they flow very nicely. I’ve thought about joining them together but including all of the essential components would mean making it out to be a very long sentence. Should I let this one slide or consider going for only one line?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, you can definitely get away with that. As I mention in the post, there will be times when we have to use a comparatively pedestrian first line to set up the “punch” in the second line.

  17. I’ve been through numerous rewrites of my WIP sci-fi novel, and this is the way it opens now:

    “Leeta was two years old when he began to understand that he wasn’t, and never would be, a man.

    Nor would he be a dog.”

    Curious?

    BTW, since I discovered your site I’ve been working my way through all of your articles. I had to do a search to find my way back to the first of this series, but it’s worth it.

  18. Curious what you think of this first line, which is the main character speaking (so not to confuse; the book is not in 1st person)

    “This place reminds me of my home town, but stained with soot as well.”

  19. I don’t worry too much. If I’m starting the story in the right place, then the first line should be fine.

    Mind you I do have a first line for a fantasy story that people have claimed haunts them (the story is not horror):

    “Is mother dead yet?”

  20. Hmm… Wishes Of The Few needs a better first paragraph. Here’s my opening lines:

    “I walked through the dark hallway, moving away from my room. The scenes of my dream twisted in my mind. Images and memories of all the things I had never wanted; and that had happened only weeks before.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The intrigue and imagery is definitely good. But dreams are a tricky way to start a story – even if all you’re doing is referencing them. Readers almost always prefer something a little more concrete and immediate.

  21. mimsy (what did I use before? - shrugs-) says:

    This is one of your best postings. <3 So helpful, most blogs/websites that talk about hooks don't say much. And, other peoples comments are also helpful.

    How is mine? The first two paragraphs support each other, and then it continues that way thought out the chapter.

    ****

    Merryn found this city elegant by human standards, though it did nothing but remind her of how she didn't belong. This truth became magnified from the disdainful looks of the men and women that past her by. Each haughty face and glare, as subtle as a kick in the gut. Each look when she wasn't in stealth seemed to whisper to her: half-breed.

    She clutched the pouch that bulged with gold bars. The bag stretched out and slimmed back down, its magic compressing them for lighter travel. She frowned to herself, It's not that she wanted to be a thief, she had no choice. Anyways, a few more gold filled pouches like this and I can leave.

    I am almost done with my book, and looking for a beta reader. -puppy dog eyes-

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very nice! The first line raises the immediate question of “If she’s not human, then what?” And you follow it up with additional questions in the next paragraphs. Good job!

      • Sorry about not checking back sooner for a reply I tend to drown in my book sometimes and forget other things. >_<

        Great! 😀 Good then it's fixed then. ^-^ I've stopped making new chapters and am revising lately. Any advice on how to fix a bad character mess up (not sure what to call it.) I've come to realize that the first antagonist, people just love but then a few chapters later he's killed off. (I did that early on before I knew better.) I'm wracking my brain on how to fix this. Thank you for replying, and any help is appreciated.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It’s not *necessarily* a problem to kill off a character readers love. It makes the death meaningful.

          • Ya but I went on on on gave him his own chapter he was also in the second chapter and a few chapter later boom, dea. Bringing him back unstuck chapter 35. He’s too fun to kill off a narcissist young portal scientist wizard. Literal on the wizard part. xD

            But yes I get what you mean. I’m trying like heck to keep the main pov from dying in the climax. Oh well it’ll work it self out.

  22. Great article, just hope my Nth version of my opening line works – been rewriting it for about 6 months
    “Mark Bishop sighed deeply as he placed the urn next to the other three in his study, glanced at David’s boxes on the floor and slowly walked to the office.”

  23. I love writing first sentences and trying to create tension.
    First sentences from some of my old maunscripts:

    The corridor was empty, just how Luca liked it.

    He had to clutch the paper tightly.

    Her hand went limp, and the pencil rolled slowly to the edge of the desk and fell.

    Splinters of white foam exploded from the water, and for a moment the stone was gone.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Weiland of Helping Writers Become Authors […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.