Opening Lines

Heading into my final round of editing this week. I’m very excited and scared to death at the same time.  This book, the third in the Prospect series, has been a long time in the incubator.  Now that it’s ready for publication, I want to get it “right.”

I’ve already made several passes through the ms on the computer, now I’ve printed it out for a final read. My twentieth century brain “sees” things on paper that it misses on a screen.

Aside from the usual eye out for typos and inconsistencies, like changing hair colour or a week with two Mondays, I want the story to engage the reader right from the start. I’ve been studying opening lines in my favourite books, reading advice columns and watching “flog a pro,” on Writer Unboxed.  Ray Rhamey  writes a regular feature on that blog where he quotes the opening paragraph or two of a best seller and asks readers if they’d turn the page.  It’s a fun game, but I’m often at odds with him.  Rhamey wants lots of tension and action in the opening lines.  I understand that.  It’s a great hook.  Yet, when I check out my favourite stories, they often begin slowly, setting the scene, hinting at a problem but not diving straight in on the first page.  Many books on my keeper shelf begin with dialogue, which may seem innocuous but speaks to character and motivation.

Advice for writers always emphasises the importance of the opening line. It should ask a story question, hint at the protagonist’s character, introduce the setting and exhibit the author’s “voice.”  All in ten words or less.

I think lots of writer advice books are geared to high-concept stories – thrillers, action novels, suspense; the type of book, that when turned into a movie, opens with a gun fight or a car chase.

Romantic movies usually start more gently. “You’ve Got Mail,” begins with a long sequence of shots setting the location in Seattle.  “Casablanca” starts with a map and ominous music while a voice over sets the scene.  In a book, that would be omniscient author. “Titanic” is a sepia scene of passengers waving from the deck of a cruise ship.  There are other examples, but you get the idea – no gun fights.

My book starts with setting, gold rush town in 1888. The heroine is excited about a new business venture.  She has risked her inheritance.  She has a sister.

There’s more, of course, but if we were to follow Ray Rhamey’s model, that is all you would get before he asked the question “would you turn the page?”

Over to you, dear readers. How do you like your opening lines in a romance?  Would you read the next line after this opening?

On a hot sunny morning Louisa Graham stood on the boardwalk of Prospect’s main street and pointed with pride to the brand new sign over the photography studio.  “What do you think?” She craved her sister’s approval.

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  1. Diana L.

    I like the way you’re beginning your book. I’m also struggling with how to begin a romance. On a suggestion, I tried to edit to have it begin into the story somewhat – where the main character finds her in bed naked with a stranger – and while that had immediate impact to be sure, I had a lot of trouble trying to subsequently weave how she got there into the story.

    I’m thinking that instead of trying to do it that way I need to just reduce the amount of lead up to that moment so that the impatient reader can get to that part of the story faster.

    • Alice Valdal

      It’s a tough problem. I’ve noticed jumping backward and forward in time seems to be almost a formula in much of today’s fiction. I find it irritating. Just tell me the story, starting at the beginning and going through to the end. I think the jumping around thing happens for the very reason you’ve outlined. You want to start with the high impact scene, but it needs a set up, so back and forth we go. As a reader this leaves me scratching my head and wondering what time frame we’re in. It also detracts from the story for me because each time shift jars me out of the book and reminds me I’m reading about made-up people. Good time to put the book down.
      One more thing. This is “your” book. You should write it the way you think it works best. Might be worth looking at the opening pages of some of your favourite writers.
      Thanks for writing, and good luck with your story.

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