How to Write an Opening Line that Will Hook Readers (and a Publisher!)

post4The first sentence of your story is the most important you will write. It will determine whether the reader (or publisher) decides to keep reading or toss your book aside.

Think of it this way: when you meet someone new you decide from your first impression whether or not you like the person and are interested in continuing a conversation. (Or if that Hitler stache is just too creeptastic and you want to hightail it out of there first chance you get).

The first sentence is your story’s first impression to a reader. So you need to make it brilliant.

The first thing I do when I pick up a book at the store is read the opening line. If it catches my interest, I’ll examine the book further, maybe even buy it. If not, it goes back on the shelf. So how do you keep a reader from putting your book back on the shelf?

Let’s look at some examples of opening lines. On a scrap of paper, jot down which numbers make you want to read the rest of the story.

  1. “I’ve been locked up for 264 days.”
  1. “The songs of the dead are the lamentations of the living.”
  1. “She killed him in the darkest part of the night, before the dew had settled on the grass.”
  1. “Around midnight, her eyes at last took shape.”
  1. “Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.”
  1. “Laurel’s shoes flipped a cheerful rhythm that defied her dark mood.”
  1. “I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.”
  1. “Chauncey was with a farmer’s daughter on the grassy banks of the Loire River when the storm rolled in, and having let his gelding wander in the meadow, was left to his own two feet to carry him back to the chateau.”
  1. “After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point.”
  1. ““Four-ball, side pocket.” Aislinn pushed the cue forward with a short, quick thrust; the ball dropped into the pocket with a satisfying click.”

Which of these books would you like to read? Which opening lines arouse your curiosity and make you want to know what happens next?

The odd-numbers are examples of excellent opening lines; the even-numbers are examples of weak opening lines. I’m willing to bet the odd-numbered examples were the ones that made you want to read the rest of the story.

And guess which books are on my bookshelf? That’s right–the odd-numbers. They aroused my interest enough to make me want to buy the book, which is exactly what you want as a writer.

So what makes the good lines good?

  • They arouse curiosity: Why is she locked up? Why did she kill him? Why would she kill her true love? Why is she surrounded by wolves? How did she become a slave?
  • They present conflict: Will she escape prison? Will she get away with killing him? Will she really kill her true love? Will she be killed by the wolves? Will she escape slavery?
  • They start near the action—things are happening or about to happen. There is the feeling of forward momentum from the combination of curiosity and conflict. You want to plunge your reader into the heart of the story as quickly as possible—start in the middle of the action.

What makes the weak lines weak?

  • They don’t arouse curiosity or present conflict.
  • #2 tries to be profound but just ends up being confusing.
  • #8 is description, which slows down the story before it even starts.
  • The problem with opening with dialogue as in #10 is it’s somewhat jarring–we haven’t been introduced to the characters yet and we don’t know who’s speaking.

In case you’re curious, here are the books whose opening lines were used in the example: 1. Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi 2. Eldest by Christopher Paolini 3. Claire de Lune by Christine Johnson 4. Fallen by Lauren Kate 5. The Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater 6. Wings by Aprilynne Pike 7. Shiver by Maggie Steifvater 8. Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick 9. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas 10. Wicked Lovely by Marissa Marr

The purpose of your opening line is to hook the reader by arousing curiosity and/or presenting conflict and action. Give your reader a reason to keep turning those pages! Are you up to the challenge?

Go to a library, bookstore, your own bookshelf, or even, and browse through some books examining the first line. Which ones draw in your interest? Which ones don’t? Share below!

ink and quills blog signature 2

The Secret to Vivid Writing

Vivid WritingYou know how some writers have a way of bringing a scene to life and making it feel as though it’s real? It’s a strange enchantment. We are willing to believe anything the author says because it’s so vivid, how could it not be true?

What is this sorcery, you ask? Thankfully it’s not really magic, and it’s something you can learn too. So listen up, because I’m about to spill some valuable secrets here.

The secret to vivid writing is: specific nouns.

Um, what?

Allow me to elaborate. The more specific you are in your writing, the more vivid of an image you will create in the reader’s mind. The more vague you are, the more hazy the image will be. Specific nouns reveal more about your characters and their surroundings.

Sounds simple enough, right? It is, but it does take some practice and requires a little more thought and work. What do I mean by this?  Well, look at this sentence from a Middle-Eastern inspired fantasy story I wrote:

When night unfurled her stars, the nightjars emerged from their nests and the assassin strung his bow.

I could have just said the birds emerged from their nests–it would have been easier on my part. But I felt that the image could be stronger, so I researched nocturnal birds native to the Middle East and came across nightjars. Additionally, my character did not simply carry a sword–it was a shamshir (a curved, Persian sword).

Do you see how these little, specific details reveal more about the character’s world?  Be specific whenever you can, and be wary of using vague nouns as they can imply a lazy or inexperienced writer.

Let’s look at a few more examples. Take note of the differences in the images each sentence makes you conjure:

  • The bird sat in the tree VS. The owl perched in the pine.
  • Her garden was full of flowers VS. Roses, petunias, and dahlias crowded her garden.
  • The man got into his car VS. The lawyer slid into his black Mercedes.

Remember: specific, specific, specific!

What are some books you love where the story was brought to life through vivid details? How do you use them in your own writing?

ink and quills blog signature 2

How to Create Life-like Characters in 6 Steps

#Characters are the life’s blood of your #story. Learn how to create characters that feel real. Characters are the life’s blood of your story.

We read about characters we care about to find out what will happen to them. If you have a killer plot but flat characters, the reader won’t bother to finish your story because they won’t care what happens to your characters.

So how do you make readers care about people who don’t exist?

By making your characters feel real. A character becomes life-like when you flesh him out and layer him with details—and I don’t just mean favorite food, band, or what color underwear he’s wearing. Those little details have their place, but to truly make a character come to life, we must dig deeper.

For this post, I will be using the character Elsa from Frozen as an example (If you haven’t seen the movie you must have a frozen heart and need to go crawl into a corner in shame). Let’s begin, shall we?

STEP #1: Childhood/Family

A person is heavily shaped and influenced by how they grew up and what sort of family they had. Did your character have a happy childhood, or was he abused or abandoned? How does his past affect who he is today?

 Elsa:  Her parents didn’t approve of her powers and wanted her to hide them. When she accidentally hurt Ana, she felt shame and guilt and tried even harder to suppress them. She cut herself off from Ana to try to protect her. Elsa’s childhood experiences had a huge impact on her character–she doesn’t know how to control her powers and feels like an outcast.

STEP #2: Hopes and Dreams

We all have them, and giving your character one will help reveal more about who he is. What is the deepest desire of his heart? Does he want to find true love? Travel to India? Start his own business? His dream doesn’t have to be the goal of the story, but it will reveal more about him.

Elsa:  She wants to be able to be herself and live alone in her ice palace in peace where she won’t be a danger to anyone.

STEP #3: Fears

Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes. Bruce Wayne is afraid of bats. Ron Weasley is afraid of spiders. Giving your character a fear makes him more relatable. It doesn’t have to be a fear of something physical, it can also be a fear of something abstract like loss, loneliness, or the dark.

Elsa: She is afraid of her powers throughout most of the movie. She fears them because she doesn’t know how to control them, and she is afraid she will hurt Ana again.

STEP #4: Flaws

If you make your character perfect, he won’t be relatable and will feel unrealistic *cough*EdwardCullen*cough.* Consider both internal and external flaws. For example, Ron Weasley in Harry Potter  is described as gangly, and he also has a temper and tends to swear. He’s not portrayed as perfect, which is what is charming and likable about him.

Elsa: She spent her childhood shutting Ana out and keeping secrets from her. She is too insecure and ashamed to be herself and be honest with Ana.

STEP #5: Strengths vs. Weaknesses

What are your character’s strengths? Is he honest, loyal, or good with a sword? Again, think both internal and external. Whatever strengths you give him, you will also have to balance them out with weaknesses. Does he act before he thinks, have a gambling habit, or is terrible at cooking?

Elsa: Her strength is her love and loyalty for her sister, which breaks the spell and saves Ana’s life. But her weakness is  her insecurity with being herself and her inability to control her powers.

STEP #6: Outlook/beliefs

The way your character sees the world will affect his personality. Is he a pessimist or optimist? Does he believe in Hinduism or is he Jewish? Is he cynical or naïve?

Elsa: She is more responsible and practical, as we see when she responds to Ana’s announcement of her engagement by saying, “You can’t marry a man you just met!” She seems more wary of people and seems to see the darker side of the world because of the way her parents treated her.

Of course there are many more aspects to creating realistic characters, but I feel that these 6 things are your essential building blocks. Before you start a story, write a short “bio” for your main characters that answers these questions. Getting to know your characters first will make the writing process easier because you’ll know how they will react in the situations you throw them into.

Take the time to develop your characters and they will become real to you–and your reader.

 What brings characters to life for you as a reader?

ink and quills blog signature 2

7 Things No One Tells You About Writing a Novel

blogpost1 finDo you have a crazy-awesome idea you want to turn into a novel? Brilliant!

But before you begin, there are some dark secrets about writing you need to know. If you think writing a novel will be an effortless pouring of inspiration onto the page leading to a NYT best-seller and a six-figure publishing deal, you may want to hit pause.

Consider the following before you start joyously tippity-tapping away at the keyboard.

#1: It’s a lot of hard work

Okay I lied, you’ve probably heard this one already. But have you heard it from Ernest Hemingway?

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.

Sounds delightful, yes? Not only is the act of writing a labor in and of itself, but it is also mental and emotional work–some days it will drain you.

#2: It’s scary

When you write, you bare your soul. You make your innermost thoughts, beliefs, ideas, and feelings vulnerable to critique by the world. There is an underlying fear of failure and rejection with every word you type. Writing is an act of courage.

#3: You will have to make sacrifices

Writing a novel will suck up your time like a dementor sucks up happiness. Do you ever find you don’t have enough time to write? A serious writer has to make time, and this means making sacrifices. To make time to write I have sometimes sacrificed sleep, outings with friends, and movie nights.

#4: You must overcome the voice that says, “No one will want to read this.”

You know what I’m talking about. That little demon sitting on your shoulder, niggling in your ear. Yeah, that guy. He’ll tell you that your work is worthless and you’re wasting your time, but you have to learn to tell him to shut up. Basically, writing is an intense mental battle that will make you feel like a schizophrenic.

#5: Sometimes you will hate your writing—but that’s normal

Yep, you read that right. Every writer hates their writing. It’s healthy. So go ahead, hate away. It shows you are able to view your work critically, which is an important skill. Just don’t take your hatred to the extreme like Kafka, who asked his friend to destroy all of his fiction upon his death. Avoid melodramatics.

#6: You can’t wait for inspiration to write

That image of the writer enraptured by inspiration and pouring a brilliant novel onto the page with ease is a myth. Inspiration comes and goes in spurts. Writer’s block is the notorious beast that separates the wanna-be’s from the real writers. You must learn to slay it.

#7: You will spend most of your time editing

Your story isn’t finished once you type “the end.” In fact, that was just the beginning. You will spend more time editing (and re-editing) your novel than you did actually writing it. By the time you’re finished, the very sight of your novel will probably give you the strong urge to vomit. Or slam your head against a wall. Editing is a necessary evil.

If none of these dirty little secrets deter you, congrats! You have the mettle of a true writer. Ready to start on that novel? Next time, we’ll dig into creating life-like characters.

ink and quills blog signature 2