Why your novel’s opening lines matter

First sentences are doors to worlds.

Ursula Le Guin,

Whether you’re intending to self-publish or aiming for mainstream publication, the opening lines of your novel are prime real estate.

If you’re a self-publishing author, your opening pages (in the Kindle sample) should hopefully reel in potential readers to hit the buy button.

However, ordinary readers are a great deal more forgiving than agents when it comes to openings. While your opening should still catch the reader’s attention, leaving them wanting more, they probably won’t bail as fast as an agent. Readers might read a bit more of the sample before deciding if it’s for them or not.

Agents, on the other hand, are inundated with submissions. But they are paid through their work with existing clients. Any time spent going through queries is time away from that.

For that reason, they don’t have time to waste. They are looking to quickly eliminate as much of the submissions pile as possible. They don’t need or want to take on a whole load of people. Any excuse to reject will be taken.

There are obvious mistakes writers make, like sending the wrong genre to the wrong agent, etc. But the opening lines of a novel can also lead to immediate rejection. If certain problems show up in your novel’s opening, it will be assumed they likely appear throughout the book.

From an agent’s perspective, trying to fix such problems will be seen as too time consuming when there are other submissions in a much better state.

Hard as it may be to believe, some agents judge your manuscript that fast. Some claim they can tell whether a book is worth reading from the opening line. This probably seems unreasonable, so it’s worth digging into why it just might be true.

Common problems with openings

Before getting into how opening lines can predict problems further into a manuscript, it’s worth looking at other obvious problems that can come up with openings.

  • Unnecessary prologues – some prologues work, including micro-prologues, but a lot of readers and some agents have an aversion to prologues in general.
  • Starting with a dream or waking up – waking up at the beginning might work if there is something unusual about the opening. A shock that wakes the main character, for example. Otherwise, waking up to a routine is not an opening hook.
  • Too much worldbuilding or info dumping at the beginning – this is particularly an issue in historical, fantasy and science fiction.
  • Flashbacks in the first chapter – these pull the reader out of an opening scene they were just getting bedded into. This introduces a speed bump. But flashbacks can also indicate that the novel is starting in the wrong place. If the event in the flashback is significant enough, the novel might be better opening there or just before that point. If the flashback is simply filling in information about the character’s recent problems, that can wait.
  • POV shifts in the first chapter – if your first chapter isn’t very long then any viewpoint shifts to another viewpoint character has happened before your reader had a chance to spend much time with the first one.

However, the point of this post is to examine issues with opening lines, not opening chapters. Especially since some agents say they can tell a novel has problems from the opening line.

First line issues

It can be hard to understand how someone writes off a whole novel on the basis of the first line. But it happens. With other people, they might bail at the end of the first paragraph or page. So what is going on? What should you look out for as a writer? What should you avoid?

  • Opening lines with too much past perfect tense – using the word ‘had’ – is an indication your novel is likely starting in the wrong place. You’re feeding in information about the past – it could be back story through telling/summary/exposition, but it doesn’t belong here.
  • Exposition/telling/info dumping in the first lines also suggests that too much telling and info dumping could be a problem in other parts of the manuscript. This includes back story – it doesn’t belong here.
  • Badly structured or over-long sentences. One thing you need to aim for from the very beginning is clarity. Any reader, agent or otherwise, needs to be able to enter the world of your book easily. Overly complex language, tortured sentence construction, and sentences that go on too long make things more difficult for a reader right at the beginning.
  • Pulled out perspective – this makes it hard to get close to a character. It could also be that the perspective is so pulled out that it’s not clear who or where the main character is. It’s really important to introduce your main character in a way that intrigues the reader.
  • Head hopping – if you are jumping in and out of different characters’ heads in the opening lines, agents will rightly assume it’s a problem throughout the whole manuscript.
  • Too many names introduced at the beginning – the reader doesn’t know any of these people and will not be able to picture them or know anything about them this early. Too many names – and this can also include place names – can lead to confusion. You want clarity and not confusion at the beginning of a book. Don’t introduce names unnecessarily, especially names relating to walk-on characters.
  • Too many strange terms/words/fictional vocabulary at the beginning – this relates more to fantasy and science fiction. But it front-loads the text with hard-to-remember words that again strip the opening of clarity.
  • Too much density of information, language, more complex punctuation like colons and semi-colons, can lead to heavily weighted opening lines that seem like too much hard work for a reader. Especially someone who’s having to go through submissions quickly.
  • Overly complex language for children’s fiction – write to the correct reading age.
  • Language, tone and writing style that doesn’t match the intended genre of the book.

When to work on your opening lines

The most important thing about writing a novel or memoir is to get your story down first and tinker with it later.

Getting the first draft down is a great achievement in itself, but you can’t get a perfect draft down. It isn’t possible. There are too many variables in a novel. So getting the first draft down then allows you to go over what you have and start shaping it into something even better.

You don’t have to dither over having the perfect opening when you’re just starting to write your novel. It will hold you back. Perfectionism is a motivation killer.

Don’t worry about your beginning when you start writing. Once you have your first full draft, you might notice a better place to open your story. You can then rework your novel’s opening.

But it’s also important to remember that the rest of your novel must live up to a gripping opening, with a relatable or intriguing character and a great hook.

Conclusion

Your opening lines are important regardless of whether you’re hoping to hook an agent or a reader. But ordinary readers will have more patience with your openings and give you a little longer before they bail.

Agents are strapped for time, inundated with manuscripts on top of their paid work and clients. So you must stand out right from the beginning.

Ideally, your opening should show not just a great opening hook, but point to a manuscript that is polished enough not to require a lot of editing.

If you want to check out some famous opening lines from fiction, you can check out this post below:

Famous first lines or… how to start your novel.

And if you’re interested in an Opening Chapters Developmental edit where I look at the opening 10,000 words of your novel or memoir, you can check out the appropriate service page below.

Opening Chapters Developmental Edit Service.