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Opening Line

The opening line of a story should grab a reader’s attention like a flash of lightning, the sound of tires squealing to a stop, the blast of an air horn, or the bugle of a bull elk rumbling through dark woods. A well-crafted opening line is a tease, a seduction, a baited hook that threatens to drift out of reach should you not strike at it and swallow it whole.

The Hook

An Opening Line is The Hook
An opening line is a baited hook

You might be amazed at how much time an author spends crafting these “hooks” to suck you in. It is a learned skill as much as a talent, and it’s something a writer must earnestly contemplate when polishing his manuscript.

I don’t visit bookstores often anymore since I read mostly on my Kindle, but when my daughters were young and Barnes & Noble was always a part of any family outing, I would spend considerable time there reading the first lines, the first paragraphs, and the first pages of those genres I enjoy most (crime fiction, true crime, and biographies). I do it now on Amazon. (I love the “Look Inside” feature of Kindle books!)

A Fleeting Chance

A prominent literary agent who spoke at a conference I attended said that an author’s quest for representation is likewise given but a few lines, paragraphs, or—if the writer is lucky, or if her hook is so compelling—a couple of pages before a decision is made. Those 80,000 or so brilliantly crafted words mean nothing if the first dozen fail to make an agent strike at the bait. To illustrate his point, he picked up a bundle of paper, glanced at the first page, and tossed it aside. He then picked up the next bunch in a stack—some other would-be author’s blood, sweat, and tears spilled onto sheaves of paper—and repeated the act. His eyes scanned the crowd as he said, “That’s all you get. That’s your chance to wow me.”

He admitted it might not be a fair or perfect process, and then confessed that he was one of the many agents to reject the early efforts of (then unknown) Stephen King.

Great Opening Lines

My all-time favorite author, Elmore Leonard, was a master at pulling in his audience with great opening lines or paragraphs. He could set a scene and mood as quickly as anyone ever has. From his Jack Foley novel Out of Sight: “Foley had never seen a prison where you could walk right up to the fence without getting shot.” And from Rum Punch (which was made into the movie titled Jackie Brown and starred Samuel Jackson): “Sunday morning, Ordell took Louis to watch the white-power demonstration in downtown Palm Beach.”

There’s the great detective noir of Mickey Spillane, Vengeance is Mine: “The guy was dead as hell. He lay on the floor in his pajamas with his brains scattered all over the rug and my gun in his hand.”

A classic tale with one of the best opening lines ever is Charlotte’s Webb. “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Who doesn’t want to know where Papa is off to armed with an ax?

My Opening Lines

The opening paragraph of my memoir, Nothing Left to Prove, is probably my personal favorite of the books I’ve published. When I sent my proposal to five prominent NY agents, two of them requested the full manuscript for consideration. In the literary world, that is a monumental accomplishment, and I believe the opening line and paragraph is what compelled them: “The end came the day I rushed to investigate a human head hanging in a tree.”

That’s an intriguing first sentence for a work of nonfiction, wouldn’t you agree? If that doesn’t set a hook in you, it’s not your genre. The rest of that first paragraph reads: “It would be my 143rd death investigation as a homicide detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and normally, just another day at the bureau. Dead kids. Dead cops. Human fucking heads. At some point, everyone breaks.”

Fans of true crime and law enforcement biographies are likely to turn a few pages after digesting that first paragraph.

Writers and Readers

The reason I’m writing this blog, though, isn’t to boast about my memoir; rather, it is to encourage my fellow writers to strive for a great opening line in their prose and to give my readers a look under the hood.

“A burst of gunfire shattered the silence of a brisk winter night in Watts.” This is the latest rendering of the opening line for my yet-to-be-titled work in progress, a police procedural crime fiction novel set in South Central Los Angeles during the eighties. I like it, don’t you? I seriously want to know.

Although it’s not as enticing as the opening line from one novel in the Dickie Floyd series, The Program: “The first time Rudy Prada found Jesus happened shortly after he’d walked into Angel’s Market on Third Street in East Los Angeles, two blocks from King Taco and a half mile west of the sheriff’s station, a gun in his jacket pocket.” As it turned out, Rudy, a likable bad guy, became a Dickie Floyd favorite antagonist. But from the opening line, you wouldn’t imagine it being the case.

Take the Bait!

So, writers, put some extra time into the crafting of those hooks. And for readers, taste those opening lines and paragraphs as if you were enjoying a fine wine, taking your time to swirl the words and breathe in the fragrance with great anticipation.

Check out all of my books here!

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Thank you for reading my blog. I hope you will share it with your family and friends.

9 thoughts on “Opening Line

  1. You hit the nail on the head, brother. Great opening line for your work in progress. Get busy and finish it so I can read it. Stay strong.

  2. You had me at Watts! Lol. It’s a great first line for sure! Looking forward to reading the full novel! I know it’s going to be great.

  3. It’s the “C” line on a 49.
    The anticipation of the story.

    The affidavit of search warrants the judge signs and cannot wait to read the return of service.

    10-33. 10-33 go….

      1. That would be my Janet.
        Frequency 22
        Love you brother

        Met a nice young Officer from SAPD today.
        They are still out there working

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