Opening lines are a slap in the face with a strange hand. When done right they bring you into this new world you’re about to explore with powerful force, yet leave you needing to know more.
It has to hook your reader quickly and effectively, especially if you’re interested in selling it. In screenplays you only get a few pages, in a novel you may get a chapter. So how do you make a line that gets things running in style? Going off some of the first lines that stuck with me, and ones in the American Book Review’s list of 100 Best First Lines of Novels, here are my thoughts:
Keep it tight – Editing should remove superfluous words from your entire piece, but squeeze things extra tight in your first line. Leave no word there without a specific meaning and intent. For example, consider “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” – except for one deliberately omitted plot point, you learn something from the sheer simplicity of this sentence and specific words and phrases he used.
Make it strong – Active voice and strong verbs only. You’re in control, and your story has something to say. Does “Some thought it was a pretty good time, but others not so much” really pack the same punch?
Declare! – Make a bold statement about your world, your characters, or your ideas. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” – Holy cow. Take it further and give your readers a command. “Call me Ishmael” gives you more than just the character’s name, throwing in personality, attitude, and several implied questions.
Keep it vague – Wait, what? I thought you just said strong and delcarative! Yes, and vague. The opening line is a sharp hook, but you have a whole story over which to reel them in. After one sentence you don’t know who Lolita or Ishmael are, or who will be the hero of David Copperfield (“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show”) but you will keep on reading to find out.
There are no absolutes here, but if you look at American Book Review’s list you’ll see that, in general, the lines are still very compelling but get longer and more meandering as you move down the list.
Your opening line is a first, bold, glimpse into this new world you created, and like a curious child peeking through a keyhole you want the tiny sliver they can see to keep them glued.