Friday, July 19, 2013

Openings & First Lines (a post from Susan)

Like every agent, I’ve read lots and lots of openings; it’s after reading the first ten pages of a manuscript that I determine if I want to see more of the project.  There are certain qualities that I look for in the first lines of a book, and I wanted to share those here.

In general, I find the key to a great opening is giving just enough information to keep your reader interested, but to hold something back as well – it’s that combination of the strongly defined character, in combination with something curious or unknown, that keeps me reading. 

Establish a strong sense of the main character
In the opening, you don’t have space to share all the background on your main character, so don’t waste time on non-essential details.  Cut right to the chase: what’s at stake for your character?  What problem are they facing?  What do they want, but can’t have (at least right now)?

There should be nothing extraneous in the opening, and I often see too much explanation, scene setting, and description.  If parts of your opening don’t work directly to establish character, they may not be necessary.

Establish a good rhythm and build
Sometimes I read openings that feel choppy or confusing.  Often the writer is trying to get too much across -- is feeling pressure to capture attention, but isn’t remembering that less is more.  Try to establish an even layering of one action building to the next. 

Introduce something unexpected or puzzling
You want to make me sit up and take notice right away, and this is most easily done when you introduce a juxtaposition of two things not usually together, or something unexpected.  You don’t want to be confusing, of course, leave me curious and intrigued.

Open with action or conflict.
A caution on this point.  Too much action (and especially action at the expense of the character or world building) can feel relentless or dislocating, and ultimately uninteresting – the exact opposite of what that action is meant to do!  Action and conflict can be interior too. 

Short sentences
Often, strong openings use short sentences very effectively; they can help build curiosity and keep it simple.  This ultimately comes down to style, and you may not write this way, but if you’re struggling with your opening, see if using some shorter lines helps.

I’ll close with a few of my opening pet peeves: the alarm bell rings and a character gets out of bed, a discussion of the weather, or a detailed explanation of the character in the midst of a mundane process, like making breakfast.  Usually in these situations, the character is alone and thinking to themselves, and there’s a lack of tension.  While too much action is disorienting, introspection before we know the character and are invested in her isn’t compelling either.  It’s a balancing act!

Good luck with your openings, I look forward to seeing them in my query box!


  1. Thanks for this great post. I know I always try to get exactly what you described in the opening of my novels, but it helps to see an agent spell it out like that.

  2. Thanks for the great tips. This kind of advice is always helpful to me.

  3. Great tips for openings. I hadn't thought about it before, but many of my favorite books start with short, punchy sentences.