Most Common Writing Mistakes: Opening Lines That Lie to Readers

most common writing mistakes opening lies that lieYour opening line may be bristling with energy, danger, and barbed fishhooks designed to reel in readers, but if the paragraph that follows pulls the old switcheroo, readers are more likely to be irritated than impressed.

Let’s take a look at an example of a lying opening line:

Jeanette rounded the bend in the mountain trail, and came face to face with a huge grizzly. The bear reared up on two legs and bellowed at her.

Scary, right? This opening line drags us into this exciting tale because we want to discover what happens to poor, trapped Jeanette. Then we read on…

I turned another page in the book and looked down at my two wide-eyed children, cuddled under my arms. “Too scary for you?”

If you can imagine the sound of air rushing out of a punctured balloon, you’ve pretty much captured the feeling of anyone reading this story. Sure, the author’s opening line hooked us—but it was just a lousy trick. The book isn’t even about Jeanette, and she certainly isn’t in imminent danger of becoming a slab of meat in the grizzly’s mid-morning sandwich.

4 Types of Opening Lines that Lie to Readers

This sort of trickery can take several forms, including…

1. The Dream Opening Line

Brett gasped for breath, struggling against the pull of the riptide as another wave hammered into his face.

Suddenly, the shriek of his alarm clock yanked him from sleep, and he sat up in bed with a sigh of relief.

Just a dream, thank goodness.

2. The Joke Opening Line

When Kelly screamed, Joanna whirled around from flipping the burgers to find her best friend with a vegetable knife and blood all over her hand. Joanna darted forward, grabbing a towel to stanch the blood.

Kelly burst out laughing and started licking the red stuff off her hand. “Gotcha! It’s just ketchup.”

3. The Hyperbolic Opening Line

“My life is over!” Sandra sobbed into the phone. “Do you realize what this means? I’m going to have to move to Argentina under an assumed name!”

“Chill,” Callie said. “So you got a bad haircut, so what?”

4. The False-Alarm Opening Line

Eric looked up from his class of kindergartners as the fire alarm shrieked through the building and the sprinklers blasted water from the ceiling. Heart pounding, he herded his screaming kids through the fire drill, only to be met halfway down the hall by the sheepish principal. Someone had accidentally set off the alarm.

Conceivably, you could make any of these lines work if the switcheroo isn’t just a lie, but instead an important example of characterization (for instance, the Hyperbole example might be illustrating that Sandra is shallow, self-conscious, and prone to hysteria). But too often opening hooks like these are constructed for no other reason than to allow an otherwise boring opening to start off with a bang.

Take a look at your opening line and ask yourself the following questions.

1. Does it fool readers into believing something is happening when it really isn’t?

2. Does the information that follows appropriately build on the tension offered in this first line?

If not, your opening line may be lying to your readers without your even realizing it. Readers always deserve to be treated with more respect than that.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Does your opening line lead in solidly to the rest of your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. thankfully, the answer is a definite yes!

  2. >>Does your opening line lead in solidly to the rest of your story?<< I was greatly surprised at what I was able to accomplish with a single sentence. It hints at back story (unobtrusively), sets up the theme, and poses a question that ripples through the entire story.

  3. @mshatch: Awesome! If you’ve got a good beginning to build on, everything else will often just flow.

    @Garridon: The challenge of the opening sentence is packing all kinds of info into only a few words. It takes a skill to do it.

  4. Wow, I couldn’t believe how annoying it was to find out those opening lines were lies! That would be so frustrating! (Not sure how you did it but I am actually mad over here).

    But that is amazing! Thankfully my opening line gives the basics of my character’s personality. She introduces a very important part of herself, that plays out in the story. Maybe it’s not the best opening but it is the best I’ve written for the story so far.

    Thank you so much!

    Jessica

  5. The great thing about opening lines is that they can always be rewritten – and usually are. We need to come up with the best we can, then move on to write the rest of the draft. My beginnings inevitably change anyway, so I usually have to rewrite my opening lines several times to fit.

  6. Just had an Aha moment–this is what’s wrong with my WIP! Great reminder and really helpful examples here. I always give this advice for titles, as well–make sure they set the appropriate tone for the work that follows. Thanks!

    -Miss GOP

  7. Those aha moments are always exciting. It’s great when you can finally put your finger on something you know is wrong.

  8. Good points. I really hate all opening lines that are gimmicky.

  9. I groaned when I got to “The Dream.” That is the way I opened WARLOCK. But I rationalized, and let myself off the hook, since “my” dream was pre-sight, and within a page, my protagonist had run to the cabin and saved the femme fatale.

    I love rationalizing. — MW

  10. @Sarah: That’s the secret to openers in a nutshell: no gimmicks. Readers love to be taken for a ride, but only when the author plays fair.

    @Mac: Dream openers are notorious for being on agents’ no-no list, but there are always exceptions. If the dream actually plays a significant role in the story, you’re probably safe using it – although you should beware that you may have a more difficult time getting agents to read on.

  11. Thankfully, my opening does fit well.

  12. That’s always a great feeling!

  13. My opening fits well, too. Sets up everything … and this is about the fiftieth opening line of the story. It took me A LONG time to get it right. I’m sure it will be tweeked again, but I think it’s pretty solid. Opening lines are so hard, and this is great advice.

    Thanks!

  14. As hard as beginnings in general are, opening lines can often be the most difficult part of all. Convincing a reader (or an agent) to read our stories often depends on that one little line. No wonder we sweat over it!

  15. Thank you for this tidbit! I would hate for entertainment to overshadow integrity. What a great insight for writers to consider. I’m sure it would bite us in the end if we compromised 🙂

  16. This type “lying” isn’t often a conscious deception on the author’s part, and readers probably won’t accuse you of being a no-good liar. But if you can present your story honestly, from beginning to end, you’ll gain readers’ trust -something every author is in search of.

  17. I’ve just checked what my opening line was… and it’s pretty dull. I’ll definitely re-read this post when it’s time to re-write the beginning! Great post!

  18. I would always recommend searching for the most scintillating opening line possible. But sometimes you can get away with a dull opener if the rest of the paragraph provides the hook.

  19. Great points! I’ll steer clear of those for sure. I hadn’t thought of lying in the first line before. Luckily, I don’t think mine falls into any of those categories. =)

  20. It’s always exciting (not mention relieving) when you read about “common mistakes” and discover you’re not making any of them. 🙂

    • Yesss, finally something that I did not commit.
      Um, to be true, after cutting the boring backstory during the 2nd edit 🙂

  21. Oooo! I hate this kind of switcheroo that’s pulled on the reader. It’s not only done with words. Comic Books do this as well with the cover page showing some scintillating piece of action, that bears very little in relation to the story that unfolds inside the comic book.

  22. Sometimes the most difficult part about writing a book is playing fair. Authors are so invested in gripping readers with exciting action that they cheat. And, as we all know, in the end, cheaters always have trouble with the word “prosper.”

  23. Great point! Thankfully I haven’t read a story where the first line lied to me. You’re right, I’d be disappointed! Hopefully my first line does it’s job and more.

  24. That’s great advice. Loved this post as it just recently happened to me while reading. Fortunately, my own books do not do this, but the temptation is there. Wonderful job explaining why its a no-no.

  25. @Julie: I bet you have, and you just didn’t notice. They’re more common than you might think. But, most of the time, we don’t consciously realize what’s happening when that first line lies to us, especially if the author quickly clears up the confusion.

    @Raquel: The writing life is full of temptations, isn’t it? Think how easy writing that first draft would be if we allowed ourselves to take all these shortcuts. But the second draft… oy vey!

  26. I utilize dreams and visions as important elements in the story but I try to refrain from pulling the switch. It’s a delicate balancing act but consistency with purpose prevents it from feeling like a switch. I never lead with a vision or dream as hook. It takes quite a bit of refinement though.

  27. Dreams and visions absolutely have their place in fiction. As long as they’re not being used to manipulate the reader in a way that will leave him feeling cheated, they’re often useful techniques.

  28. Great post! I’m sorry to say that I started with a dream – first draft. Then I got smacked around a bit by a critique group and that’s been replaced by something that connects solidly with the rest of the story.

  29. We’re allowed all kinds of mess-ups in the first draft. Dreams are a common mistake – probably because we see the movies get away with them so often. Fortunately, they’re usually one of the first things a good critique partner will catch.

  30. So – the opening line I want to you is an except of dialouge from a book the protagonist is reading. It will come up several times throughout the novel and I am intending it to be a thematic and foreshadowing device in the narrative. Is this what you mean by “making any of these examples work as long as its not lying”
    Basically, the line will be dialouge from a detetive setting up some themes and tone for the book, then cut to our protag listening, being disgusted by how rote and pretentious it sounds, then her next convo sort of has beats that mirror this opening line
    excerpts of this are showing up everywhere in the book, and it ties into the mystery of the book and, like I said, so or acts as a sound board for the books themes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If the line of dialogue carries weight within the story itself, you can probably safely get away with it – as long as you immediately make readers aware that it’s an excerpt from a book within the story.

  31. Janet Wieghell says

    I’ve started my 1st person present YA novel with a vision my MC has. However, I’ve made this fact clear from the outset, with no intention of lying:
    With the unquestioning acceptance of the bizarre that comes only in dreams, I take the bowl from the woman in white robes and drink its contents.
    Is this permissible, do you think, or will my novel be in the agent’s bin before getting to the second line? I’m also not sure about starting a book with the word ‘with’.
    I’m about three quarters of the way through my first draft (though I started it during Nanowrimo 2016 and didn’t pick it up again until recently, so have re-read and second drafted the first 56K words) and am in the process of thinking about Beta readers, which is how I found myself on your wonderfully informative site so late in the day. I hope you still get to see this and give me some advice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Unless the protagonist immediately wakes up in the next sentence, as a reader, I would have some resistance to this opening. I would feel like it was taking too long to get me to the actual action of the scene.

      • Janet Wieghell says

        Thanks so much for replying – I hardly expected it four years after the last post!
        Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. Without going into too much detail, the two page vision is the start of an increasingly weird day, by the end of which she has to suspend her disbelief in the reality of magic if she’s to save her friends’ lives, something that’s difficult for a 16 year old empiricist intent on becoming a surgeon.
        The vision is integral to the story, and things she sees in it foreshadow events later in the book. I’m just not sure how to start with the vision, without lying to the reader, hence the reference to the dream in the first line.
        Is your issue, as a reader, with the fact that it’s not immediately into the action, or that it’s not fully clear it’s a vision…or both?

        I’ve spent the entirety of yesterday and this morning reading all your ‘most common writing mistakes’ (when I should have been writing, but it’s been time extremely well spent!), and I now think I’m going to have to give the first few chapters an overhaul.

        Thanks again for replying to me; it’s gracious of you to take time out to redirect a meandering amateur.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          The inherent problem of dream openings (and often dreams in general) is twofold. One is that readers can feel lied to if they do not know what they’re experiencing is a dream.

          The second issue is that most dream sequences lack stakes. Readers understand this isn’t real and therefore whatever the character’s goal (assuming they have one) and whatever conflict is opposing that goal–it simply doesn’t matter. It’s not real; it’s just, at best, symbolic.

          Usually, dreams work best when they’re very short and used more as teases or hooks that foreshadow new reveals in the real time of the plot. Bottom line: they need to directly move the plot. Otherwise, they can come across as info dumps.

          • Janet Wieghell says

            Thanks for replying once more. I’ve taken your advice to heart and spent the day doing a complete overhaul of my plot, with not a dream or vision now in sight. Other things you’ve covered have made me realise there’s an awful lot of filler in my story, which, whilst I loved writing it, is not necessary to move the plot forward. I have a tonne of revision ahead but at least you’ve saved me from wasting months finishing a book that is never going to be readable by anyone except immediate family.
            Thank you, I’m most grateful.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Glad to be of help, Janet! In regards to moving the plot, you might also find this post helpful: Top 10 Ways to Rivet Readers with Plot Reveals.

  32. Janet Wieghell says

    Thank you for the link.It’s been very useful, as have the links provided in that post, and the links provided in those posts…you get the picture 🙂

  33. So, I have a book on the back burner (my “writer block is what I get for being a horrible person in a past life” book) and anyway…

    Anyway, the book starts with what seems like a bit of medias res – detective in the rain at a crime scene when up walks the victim’s mother. And then it’s still raining, but the detective is in his room trying ignore his cell phone.

    Unfortunately, the call is related to his dream – it looks like old haunts are coming back into play.

    Because the dream is more of flashback and it ties directly into the action and the story is it still a “trick” or no?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If it’s short, a good hook, and doesn’t fool readers by pretending to be real, it could be made to work.

  34. If you had a preface that takes place later in the book in your opening, would that be considered “lying to your readers”? It shows a vague clip of what happens later so that readers will keep reading, and eventually the book will tie back in to that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      No, that’s called a flash-forward. That technique is not a lie, as long as the impression it’s giving readers is true.

  35. This is an old post, and I don’t expect to get a response, but I was wondering if this was an alright opening line.

    “Alastair O’Leary may have been a psychopath, but he prided himself on his ability to put on a show.”

    Any feedback would be highly appreciated!

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