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Creating a killer opening

We know that the first line, paragraph or scene of a book is so important, but how can writers hook their readers and have them turning the pages?

Many different types of opening can be engaging, and some cover many of the types in one hit. If you're struggling to find an impactful opener, have a think about beginning with an intrigue or puzzle, movement and action, characterisation, atmospheric description or epigram. Your choice may depend on which of these best fits with the theme or style of your story.

Intrigue or puzzle

Say something absurd, disorientating, enigmatic or unexpected.

'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.' – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

'“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.' – EB White, Charlotte's Web.

Movement and action

Start with a key moment of action.

'Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes.' – George Orwell, Animal Farm.


Say something to introduce a key character.

'There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.' – CS Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

'When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.' – Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Atmospheric description or epigram

Start with a reflection or description that sets the tone.

'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.

But which part of the story should you begin with?

Have a think about what are the key moments, people, places or puzzles of your story, and see if you can work with those to find an impactful opening line. A strong way to start may be to consider a moment of high emotional impact, and place that moment in front of your reader at the start.

Please don't be tempted to think that your reader will need to hear all the backstory or understand all of the setting before the plot really gets going. These things can come later, and weaved in on a 'need to know' basis – I've written a post on 'Background and beginnings', and there's a link in the 'Further reading' section below.

Can't get going on your story because you can't get the beginning right?

Don't let the lack of an opening line inhibit you from writing the story. In fact, I can't see how it's possible to write an opening line (or paragraph, or perhaps scene) until the story is formed. So just get going, begin wherever you like in the plot, rearrange it, edit it – whatever approach works for you. Then you might need to consider your key characters, themes, action scenes or emotional moments to find the killer opening. And ask your writing group buddies whether you've got it right - a fresh pair of eyes might help you to cut to the chase.

Writing the opening is a challenge – no one starts with the hard things, do they?

Further reading:

My blog on 'Background and beginnings' goes into detail about how to deal with background in a story, and why it's not always the best idea to open with 'where it all began'.

This piece from Jericho Writers does a great assessment of some opening lines, and will give you lots of pointers.

This one from Daily Writing Tips gives lots more great examples with analysis.

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