An opening line can make or break a manuscript submission. They’re also incredibly underestimated by writers and readers alike.
The opening line is a powerful tool. It can hook the reader with a dramatic piece of action.
It can be a glimpse of the tones, themes, or deeper layers of the book.
It can be the introduction of a character, and the foreshadowing of their journey to come.
That single sentence can hold the weight of the thousands to follow.
Today on Why Words Work, I want to dissect two books which have fantastic opening lines. These are…
A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC.
Their author Victoria Schwab (Or, as she is better known, V.E.Schwab), is a writer who approaches her ruthless imagination with a meticulous eye.
Listening to her talk about writing is an absolute delight – and, when reading her books, you can feel the love and care she has taken over each chapter, sentence, and word.
I can honestly say that I have yet to encounter a fantasy author with as much dedication as her. And nowhere is this shown better than in the opening lines of these two books.
So, why are they so good?
Let’s start with Vicious.
“Victor readjusted the shovels on his shoulder and stepped gingerly over an old, half-sunken grave.”
STARTING WITH THE PRIMARY PROTAGONIST
Vicious is a story with many points of view. Throughout the book, we see the world unfold through the eyes of different characters. But, without giving too much away, Victor lies at the core of them all. Be he a friend, a foe, an ally, or worse, he is at the centre of the story to come. Thus, it makes sense to start the story from his eyes. He is the catalyst of the novel – the fire that sets everything in motion.
Starting the book with the primary character is the best, and fastest, way of introducing your reader to them.
Speaking of introductions…
EFFECTIVE ADVERBS – INTRODUCING PERSONALITY
Take a look at that adverb there. GINGERLY.
Think about what feeling it invokes. A warmth, right? A giddiness, childlike, innocent, perhaps a little greedy.
Now expand it to look at the whole sentence. A man walking with shovels, stepping over a grave. The contrast is instant.
Right from the get go, we gain a glimpse of Victor’s personality. Eager. Hungry. Unaffected by the macabre; determined, it seems, to be amongst it. No long winded explanation of his backstory. No exposition of feeling. No details of what he is about to do. Only implications. Glimpses. Hints.
There is nothing more tantalising than a glimpse of someone. Implying your character’s personality in the opening line makes us hungry to learn more.
So hold back on the backstory – be precise with your adverbs. We only need a glimmer to make us desire the full picture of who they are, what they are doing, and why they are there.
SETTING: IMPLIED, NOT FORCED.
The only hint of setting we get in this opening is with the old, sunken grave. Two adjectives are all we need. Rather than a long-winded description of a graveyard – the moon shining, the spikes on the gates, the ironically placed crows in the trees – Schwab uses these two descriptors to imply her setting.
Old. Sunken. Immediately, we associate it with abandonment, decay, like a ship at the bottom of the ocean. They also imply a sense of being forgotten – leading us to the assumption that Victor is likely walking through the graveyard unnoticed. An empty cemetery.
Also, when you read that line, did you picture it being night-time by any chance?
If so, I did too.
That’s the beauty of implying your setting in the opening line. It grounds the reader with a sense of place. Just enough to let them know the circumstances of the environment. And then, once you know they’re hooked, you can begin to open it up.
Schwab starts her setting with a splash of paint and leaves you to draw the rest.
Now what about A Darker Shade of Magic?
"Kell wore a very peculiar coat."
I mean, it starts with the primary protagonist, sure, but there’s no setting. No action. No dialogue. How is it any good? It’s just a fact!
Right. And that’s why it’s so good.
Kell wore a very peculiar coat. Isn’t this so delightfully vague?
Kell – Who is that? A boy? A girl?
Peculiar – Why? What’s so special about it?
This fact, without any context or grounding, becomes a fly buzzing in the reader’s head. All of a sudden, we’re confronted by a bunch of unanswered questions. Ones which we can only answer by reading on.
If there is anything that people hate more, it’s leaving a stone unturned. If you can produce this level of intrigue in your opening line – leave the reader itching for more details – then you may have a very engaging hook on your hands.
OBJECTS AND CHARACTERS
It’s your first time over a friend’s house. Stepping in, what’s the first thing you do? For me, after taking off my shoes and declining the introductory cup of tea, I will look at their stuff.
The objects that a person owns can tell us something about who they are. Whether they are a nerd, or a jock – a book obsessed monster, or a magazine fiend.
For Kell, all we know is that he has a peculiar coat. By association, then, we assume that there must be something peculiar about Kell as well. (Something which, for those who have read the book, is probably the biggest understatement of the year.)
Although we do not know the specifics, we are warned that something is different about Kell. We are subtly encouraged to look at him in a special light. (Something which, again, will become a recurring action from many of the characters in this book…)
Starting off a story with an object that sums up your protagonist – or, perhaps, becomes a smoking gun later in the story – will not only engross your reader, but will also make re-reads an absolute pleasure.
SIMPLE = MEMORABLE
And this, I think, is the most obvious reason. It’s short. It’s sweet. It sticks in your head.
If you can have readers walking around, quoting the intro of your book, word of mouth will spread.
If you can have an agent walking around, your first line buzzing between their ears, then you might have done enough to snag their interest.
Simplicity over elaborate introductions.
Memorable over decorative.
Make your first line shine and, chances are, the rest of the book will shine all the brighter.
What makes a good opening line for you? Have you read any of V.E.Schwab’s books? Let me know what you think in the comments below. Do check out the amazon links, as well as V.E.Schwab’s website, for all her latest events.