Writing 401—#2, Opening Lines

I came right out and asked her one day. I’m talking about the literary agent who landed me the contracts for Airwaves and Only His Kiss, and the question every writer wants to answer with such prowess and proficiency that failure is impossible.

What made my manuscript stand out from the others stacked on your desk?

I might have hoped for any number of replies—that the characterization was stellar, the plot kept her guessing, that the writing was superb. Nope; what she gave me was four words:

“The three-second test.”

What’s the three-second test? The amount of time she spent looking at each manuscript submitted, the amount of time it took her to read the opening line. (But no pressure, of course.) If it didn’t hook her, she tossed the bundle of pages to the “discard” pile, and moved on to the next one.

“It’s a girl, sir.”

That was the opening line that convinced her to keep reading, to give me another five seconds, the time it took her to read the next paragraph of the manuscript that became my second novel, Only His Kiss.

The hook has to accomplish one of two things.

1. It must ignite a question—What’s going on?

The opening line must make the reader curious enough to part with the money to buy your book and to part with the time to read it. (If you just mumbled to yourself that you don’t care if they read it, only that they buy it, please close the door behind you.)

2. It must promise rich beauty.

The writing must be poetic, lyric; experiential. If the words were scenery, they’d compel the reader to snap a photograph every thirty yards. If they were musical notes, their journey would make the reader’s chest ache and their throat close with emotion. As an assemblage of words, the opening lines make them nudge the nearest human being, and say, “Listen to this. Let me read you this line.”

Above all, opening lines must be so quotable, they are memorable.

This one sparks curiosity. “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” Such is the beginning of S.E. Hinton’s young adult novel, The Outsiders. She was all of sixteen when she penned it. Since the book’s publication in 1967, it’s sold more than fourteen-million copies.

The first two words in this opening line are the first and last name of the primary character, a great launch for an epic novel, don’t you think? “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were,” — Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell.

This one is lovely. “There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth,” — The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough.

And this one is just plain fun. “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him ‘Wild Thing’ . . .” — Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.

There’s no such thing as spending too much time on the opening line of your novel or short story. Remember to fuss over, nearly as much, the opening lines to each scene. Because the opening line sets the tone. The opening line leads the team. The opening line weighs the anchor. The opening line is a fanfare. The opening line turns the key.

Writing 401—#1a, Point-of-View (POV)

Before a writer can type—or pen—even the opening line of any work of fiction, they must first make a decision regarding the point-of-view (POV). That is, Who’s going to tell the story?

Generally, there are three options.

  1. Omniscient
  2. Third-person Limited
  3. First-person

1. Omniscient

  • Simple to manage.
  • An anonymous narrator tells the story.
  • The anonymous narrator reveals the thoughts and feelings of key—or even all—characters in each scene.

2. Third-person Limited

  • Challenging to manage.
  • One to three key characters in the book tell the story, each scene being limited to the POV of one character.
  • One key character in each scene conjectures the thoughts and feelings of the other characters based on what they say, do, or reveal through their body language or facial expressions.

3. First-person

  • Simple to manage.
  • The primary character tells their own story.
  • The primary character conjectures the thoughts and feelings of the other characters based on what they say, do, or reveal through their body language or facial expressions.

Readers of fiction invest their time in order to experience and to feel. Their hope is to discover a story so well crafted that they can engage with its characters. They want to step inside the characters’ heads with such abandon that it’s as if they become those characters.

In order for that to happen, the writer must make the story’s world—its characters, setting, and plot—so convincing, the reader can’t help but become immersed in it. It’s a sales job, and it involves two things—engaging the reader, and insulating the reader.

To engage the reader is to get them so emotionally involved in the experiences and feelings of the story that the real world around them fades away. Then, once you have them, insulate the reader from any intrusions or interruptions that could jar them back into reality. In other words, make the reader forget they’re reading.

I believe the omniscient POV gets inside the heads of too many characters. If a story is 300 pages long, and there are three points of view, that sifts down to 100 pages per character. If there are only two points of view, each character has 150 pages in which to engage. The fewer the points of view, the more easily—and the deeper—the reader connects.

On the other hand, the first-person POV has too few points of view. As the primary character tells their story, the constant reminder is that this is their story. Did you get that—their story. It may be more easy for the reader to engage emotionally, but I believe it’s more difficult for the reader to become the character, to disengage from the real world around them.

I write in third-person limited because it’s a challenge. Each scene is limited to one character’s POV. Since I write love stories, my novels contain only two viewpoints—the hero’s and the heroine’s.

The first challenge is in selecting the best POV for each particular scene. I usually write the scene through the eyes of the character whose life or emotions are going to take the biggest hit by what’s happening. But sometimes, after I finish the scene, something tells me—you know how that is—to start over and rewrite it through the other character’s eyes. I’m never disappointed; that second shot at it always ends up being the one with the emotional punch.

The second challenge is to not slip-up by revealing something a non-POV character is thinking. If it’s not their scene, I can’t take the reader inside their head; I’m limited to what the other character says, does, or expresses through body language or facial expressions.

But then, I don’t take the easy way when I write. I enjoy stretching myself, approaching a challenge and crafting my way through it. I prefer to push the limits—especially my own.