Great Opening Lines

How to Start a Story: 5 Proven Strategies and Why They Matter

3 Aug 2021 Fiction

Acquisitions editors and agents reject some manuscripts within the first page or two.

That doesn’t sound fair—and maybe it isn’t—but that’s the reality we writers face.

Even if you’re self-publishing and avoiding the harsh glare of professional eyes, you must rivet your readers from the get-go or most will close your book without a second thought.

Novelist Les Edgerton started a short story this way:

He was so mean that wherever he was standing became the bad part of town.

I’d keep reading, wouldn’t you?

If you’re stuck on how to start a story, you’re not alone.

Settling on a compelling opener is critical to the success of the rest—whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, your first sentence will be the most important. If it fails, readers stop reading.

How to Start a Story

How to Start a Story

As a novelist, you owe your reader certain things from page one.

By investing in your novel, your reader tacitly agrees to willingly suspend disbelief and trust you to provide entertainment, inspiration, or education—sometimes all three.

In exchange, the reader expects to be given credit for having a brain, not spoon fed. They want to participate in the experience. Set the tone of your novel early.

Whether your opening scene is funny or serious, the rest should follow suit.

The first few paragraphs serve as your calling card not only to readers but also to the potential agents or acquisitions editors who precede them.

To help you develop a strong beginning and get out of the way so your readers can, as Canadian author Lisa Moore puts it, begin to create your story in their head:

1. Begin in medias res.

That’s Latin for “in the midst of things.” It doesn’t have to be slam-bang action, unless that fits your genre. But start with something happening. Give the reader the sense he’s in the middle of something.

Don’t waste your opener (the highest price real estate in your manuscript) on backstory or setting or description. Layer these in as the story progresses. Get to the good stuff—the guts of your story—and trust your reader to deduce what’s going on.

The goal of every sentence, in fact of every word, is to get force the reader to read the next.

2. Introduce your main character early.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to introduce your main character too late. (Hints on naming your character.)

As a rule, he* should be the first person on stage.

[*I use he inclusively to refer to both genders.]

Naming your character can be almost as stressful as naming a newborn, so take the time you need to get it right. Make it interesting and memorable, but not quirky or outrageous.

Search online for baby names by ethnicity and sex. Consult World Almanacs for foreign names. Be sure they’re historically and geographically accurate. You wouldn’t have characters named Jaxon and Brandi, for instance, in a story set in Elizabethan England.

Work in just enough detail to get readers to care what happens to him. Is he a spouse, a parent, troubled, worried, hopeful? Then get to the problem, the quest, the challenge, the danger—whatever drives your story.

3. Don’t describe; layer in.

Agents and editors say a common mistake in beginners’ manuscripts is starting a story by describing the setting.

Don’t get me wrong—setting is important. But we’ve all been put to sleep by an opening scene that began something like:

The house sat in a deep wood surrounded by…


Rather than employing description as a separate element, layer it in as part of your story. That way the reader subconsciously becomes aware of it while you’re focusing on the plot itself—what’s happening.

For example, instead of:

The house sat in a deep wood surrounded by… (Description as a separate element.)

Try this:

Wondering what could be so urgent that he had to meet Tim in the middle of the night, Fred pulled deep into the woods on an unpaved road and came upon… (Layering in the details.)

4. Show, Don’t Tell

When you tell rather than show, you simply inform your reader of information rather than allowing him to deduce anything.

You’re supplying information by simply stating it. You might report that a character is “tall,” or “angry,” or “cold,” or “tired.”

That’s telling.

Showing paints a picture readers see in their minds’ eyes.

Telling: She could tell he had been smoking and that he was scared.

Showing: She wrapped her arms around him and smelled tobacco. He shivered.

Layered in as part of the action, what things look and feel and smell and sound like register in the theater of your readers’ minds, while they’re concentrating on the action, the dialogue, the tension and drama and conflict that keeps them turning those pages.

That way, you can subtly work in all the details they need to get the full picture and enjoy the experience from the first sentence.

5. Find your writing voice.

How to Start a Story

This isn’t as complicated as it sounds.

Put simply, your writing voice is you.

It reveals your:

  • Personality
  • Character
  • Passion
  • Emotion
  • Purpose

Imagine saying to your best friend, “Have I got something to tell you…”

What comes next will likely be in your most passionate voice.

You at your most engaged is the voice you want on the page.

That’s what your writing voice should sound like.

To use it in fiction, give that voice to your perspective character.

Remember, the goal of your opener is to leave your reader with no choice but to turn the page.

Need help writing your novel? Click here to download my 12-step guide to writing a novel.

4 Ways to Start a Story

Learn from those who’ve done it successfully. Examples:

1. Surprise

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” —Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” —George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

“High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.” —David Lodge, Changing Places (1975)

“A screaming comes across the sky.” —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

“It was a pleasure to burn.” —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” —Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1915)

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” —Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)

“Marley was dead, to begin with.” —Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)

2. Dramatic Statement

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

“I am an invisible man.” —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” —Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925)

“They shoot the white girl first.” —Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

“You better not never tell nobody but God.” —Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

3. Philosophical

How to Start a Story

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” —Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” —L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

“Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.” —Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (1990)

“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.” —Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” —Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” —H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)

4. Poetic

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” —James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss (1978)

“It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.” —William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust (1948)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

“In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue.” —Joan Didion, Blue Nights (2011)

“Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.” —Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear it Away (1960)

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937)

Writing a Great Opening Line Is Only the Beginning

Few pleasures in life compare to getting lost in a great story.

The story worlds you and I create and the characters we birth can live in the hearts of readers for years.

It begins with writing an opener so compelling they can’t help but continue turning the pages.

214 thoughts on “How to Start a Story: 5 Proven Strategies and Why They Matter

  1. My favourite first line in a contemporary novel is from Joshilyn Jackson, “There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus.”
    From Gods in Alabama

    I aspire to write like the authors above! Writing and editing, writing and editing will get me there.

  2. “call now desper8.” Because I was late to join the get-a-cell-phone party, this line from I, Saul by Jerry B. Jenkins with James S. MacDonald delighted me. Also, it broke the start a sentence with a capital letter rule. :)

  3. “Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour. He left the taxi a few blocks short of his destination. It was a fine, clear day, the sun already low in the blue sky.” – Patriot Games, Tom Clancy

    “The room was still empty. The Oval Office is in the south-east corner of the White House West Wing.” – Clear and Present Danger, Tom Clancy

    This is something I am experimenting with, currently on my novel. Since I am new and this is my first one, I am really trying to get it right. Starting as a spy novel and moving into becoming a pastor at the end. I want to move into the reader’s head from the beginning.

  4. At the risk of blowing my own horn, my favourite opening line is from my own mystery short story published in the Toronto Sister in Crime anthology, The Whole She-Bang 3: “It was the summer my father rented the villa in Tuscany that I killed my mother’s lover.”
    I know that it breaks the rules of mystery writing by revealing the identity of both the killer and the victim, but since the narrator is a 14-year-old girl, the reader is left to wonder how and why the murder takes place, and if the murder is real or simply a teenage fantasy.

  5. In my younger and more venerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
    “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” The Great Gatsby

  6. I try to make it a practice not to argue with success, and of course The Great Gatsby is no longer up for judgment; only the reader is. So, I confess I’m guilty. That opener did not compel me to keep going. That it was an English assignment did.

  7. The first sentence of Patriot Games was enough to draw me in. Had he started with either of the next two sentences, no.

    The opener for Clear and Present Danger is too vague for me. The fact that a room is empty and telling where the Oval office lies?

    You have the right objective, Mark, but I was confused about how a novel becomes a pastor. :)

  8. LMBO! What can I say, I’m a sucker for a sappy story. I love that line though, it’s so true :-)

  9. “It stands there, massive and brooding and lonely, its logs aged to silver from the buffeting of the harsh winds of winter and the rains of spring and fall, dappled by the shadows of a thousand leaves in the sunlight of summer.” Clare Bauer –Some Through the Waters (1979)

  10. I can’t say I have any favorites. But I am drawn to poetic lines that metaphorically say much more than the words. I just finished Bradbury’s, Fahrenheit 451. It was a pleasure to burn, is the first line. Good line. But that’s not why I read the book. (First of all, it was a gift from one of my college professors.) And I read it because of the way Bradbury uses words and for the meanings that follow. I seldom stay with a book long. I bore easily. But I did this one. Another I enjoy, is E.B. White’s work, especially his essays. Frost is my favorite poet. He has such a fine command of the language. I admire that in any writer, in prose or poetry. I love the texture of words and the smell of books. Something that’s noncaloric, something that feeds you in spite of their absence.

  11. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” was always my favorite opener. I’m always very picky about my first lines, because I know as a reader that if I’m not hooked on the first page, I probably won’t stick around. And I don’t want my readers doing that!
    In my Amazon book “The Hidden Soul” I started it like this: “The iron scales of the breastplate clattered together as he pulled it over his shoulders – A sound he would hate until his dying day.”
    I read once that you should make your MC’s problem evident on page one, so I figured I’d do it in sentence one.

  12. Jerry Barkley’s family did have a pot to pee in. The problem was making the payments.

  13. I am trying to write a story like everybody else here. I have a first sentence that goes like this _ The police were apologetic telling the victims’ families their love ones were just collateral damage.

  14. Thoughts on these?

    Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
    Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

    I was running away. I was running away from England, from my childhood, from the winter, from a sequence of untidy, unattractive love-affairs, from the few sticks of furniture and jumble of overworn clothes that my London life had collected around me…
    The Spy Who Loved Me

    All children, except one, grow up.
    Peter Pan

    You will never know what it’s like to wrestle an alligator until you face an articulate alligator.
    The Articulate Alligator

  15. When I read all 4 of these openings, I had a question(s) running through my head for each one. The reader asking a question(s) is a sign he/she will continue reading. Questions are a result of being interested and intrigued.

  16. Each book is its own entity, of course, but I wonder if an opening is given more flexibility when it’s in a series but not the first book in the series.

  17. There is a line from a favorite mystery of mine, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, from Agatha Christie:

    Stephen pulled up the collar of his coat as he walked briskly along the platform. Overhead a dim fog clouded the station. Large engines hissed superbly, throwing off clouds of steam into the cold raw air. Everything was dirty and smoke‐grimed.
    Stephen thought with revulsion: ‘What a foul country—what a foul city!’
    His first excited reaction to London, its shops, its restaurants, its well‐dressed, attractive
    women, had faded. He saw it now as a glittering rhinestone set in a dingy setting.
    Supposing he were back in South Africa now… He felt a quick pang of homesickness.
    Sunshine—blue skies—gardens of flowers—cool blue flowers—hedges of plumbago—blue
    convolvulus clinging to every little shanty.
    And here—dirt, grime, and endless, incessant crowds—moving, hurrying—jostling. Busy ants running industriously about their ant‐hill.
    For a moment he thought, ‘I wish I hadn’t come…’

    The first line doesn’t hook the reader immediately like this line from Ruth Rendell’s book A Judgement Set In Stone, ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write’, but as I read further this line (fifth paragraph on the first page) catches my attention : ‘for a moment, he thought, “I wish I hadn’t come . . . “‘ I ask the questions: Why didn’t he want to come? What is the reason? Where exactly is he going? As I ask these questions, I’m interested in reading on. I don’t think the first line has to hit the reader all the time but as you said Jerry, editors/publishers judge a story within the first few paragraphs. I think as long as the reader ask a question as a result of interest and intrigue, the reader will want to continue.

    The book was published 1938 so I guess if the story was published in 2017, it would be better to take the line that will hook the reader immediately: ‘For a moment he thought, “I wish I hadn’t come. . .” and go on from there.

  18. I think if the series is a continuation –all one story– the opening for each book has to intrigue the reader or else they won’t continue the whole series. And the writer’s desire is for the reader to read the whole series — the whole story. If the reader plows through Book 1 in the series, you want to have an interesting opening in Book 2 or else that reader will give up and not read Book 3 or other installments. I think in a series that isn’t a single story I think there is more leeway.

  19. That’s why it’s crucial to compartmentalize, Lisa. I’m the same way, a perfectionist tempted to grind out a sentence a word at a time, being sure each is the best it can be. I have to turn off my internal editor when banging out that first draft. I envision it as a hunk of meat I need to get onto the butchering table so I can carve it tomorrow. THEN I can indulge my perfectionism and self-edit to my heart’s content. While writing I force myself not to care about spelling, punctuation, cliches, inconsistencies, lacks of logic, forgetting to engage the senses, etc. I just get that thing done.

  20. You’re right, Brian, it’s the years that make the difference on this one. That and the fact that when she wrote it, Christie was already accepted as a master. For today’s audiences, not to mention acquisitions editors and agents, that opener breaks a lot of rules and would get a heavy edit. She paints some wonderful word pictures, but she also explains: we could do without the “overhead,” “dim,” “off,” “dirty and,” “with revulsion,” “set,” “quick,” “blue” three times in one sentence, “little,” “dirt,” “endless,” “moving, hurrying,” “Busy,” “For a moment…”

  21. “Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…” -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

    “The year 1866 was signalized by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten.” – Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

  22. The police were apologetic telling the victims’ families their love ones were just collateral damage.

    The problem here is Point of View. Who is the perspective character? Not “the police.” Not “victims’ families.”

    “…were apologetic” is passive and telling, rather than showing. And it’s one group telling another group something.

    Make it personal, bring it home. Maybe something like this:

    “Your boy was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” the cop said. “Not a suspect, not at fault.”

    That was supposed to make Marie feel better, that Jon was what, collateral damage? What was she to say, her son’s body face down on the asphalt, his head in a pool of his own blood, “Thanks for sharing”?

    “We don’t fire when we did, more people woulda been killed.”

    She set her jaw. “I hope that makes you feel better, officer. Could you at least have someone cover my son?”

  23. “…did have…” is passive. Maybe: Jerry Barkley’s family had a pot to pee in. They just couldn’t make the payments on it.

    Or you could affect an even lighter tone: It’s tough when you can pee but not pay. Jerry Barkley’s family..

  24. That’s a good one, Reagan. I once shamelessly began a novel, “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.”

    Were I editing yours I would have rendered it this way to eliminate the echoing of the word “the” and the subtle redundancy “clattered together”:

    Its iron scales clattered as he pulled the breastplate over his shoulders.

    I do think it needs either “on” or “off” after “breastplate,” because otherwise only you know whether he’s putting it on or taking it off.

  25. A good example, Rosemarie, of description that works despite standing alone. I like to try to layer it into the action of the story, but if it’s poetic enough, it can work.

  26. Leeway to be less compelling? In a series, each book has to work on its own too, or readers get frustrated. Each installment has to be complete in itself AND make the reader hope there’s another. No small task.

  27. Just the other day I went back to your first Writer’s Guild Workshop “How To Become A Ferocious Self-Editor” and learned more about “Point of View” (POV), including hearing “Deep POV” referenced in the first or second Office Hour session. I remember you mention that if we’re in the character’s point of view, we are looking into his/her eyes. In other words, that character is the camera so there’s no need to say he “turned”, he “looked” or he “saw”. And I noticed from the Agatha Christie book that I mentioned earlier, the first paragraph perfectly exemplifies this:

    ‘Stephen pulled up the collar of his coat as he walked briskly along the platform. Overhead a dim fog clouded the station. Large engines hissed superbly, throwing off clouds of steam into the cold raw air. Everything was dirty and smoke‐grimed.’

  28. I caught myself when I said that. Feel kind of embarrassed saying that and was about to edit that out

  29. “I’d been in the saddle so long that my knees couldn’t remember each
    other.” (Ralph David James’ opening sentence for his short story, “Just West of Clovis.”)

  30. Very nice, Terrie. I love how the author doesn’t feel the need to explain. He says just enough that we get it. An amateur might write: “I’d been riding my horse for so long with my legs on either side of the saddle…”

    James does it just right.

  31. True, but I think you meant to say we’re looking THROUGH the character’s eyes, right?

    And you’re right about what Christie does with that opening. She didn’t say he looked up to see the fog, or that he “watched clouds of steam,” etc.

  32. In this example, it’s from a modern mystery author from a book published in 1998 called Half Moon Street by Anne Perry and the opening line doesn’t grab the reader until the fourth paragraph down she hooks the reader in with something strange — a dead man found floating in a boat up the London dock wearing a dress surrounded by yellow flowers.

    Is it okay if the opening line doesn’t automatically hook the reader, to at least hook the reader within the first few paragraphs coming in? I read plenty of great books that hooked me not at the first sentence but from a few paragraphs in and kept me hooked until the very end.

  33. I’d have to see the example. Of course it CAN work to delay the hook, for those readers with the patience to wait for it. I’m not one of them.

    That said, the first line doesn’t have to be the greatest thing in the history of writing. It simply has to make me want to keep reading–whatever that takes. It can even be quiet, if it’s riveting.

    Frenchy waited on the top step in the darkness, holding his breath. Would he hear it again, or was the hint of a whimper all he would get before…before what? He finally had to exhale, but what was that? Had it repeated? He stopped breathing again. How long could he keep this up?

  34. Here’s the example:

    The wraiths of mist curled up slowly from the gray-and-silver surface of the river, gleaming in the first light from the sun. Over the river the arch of Lambeth Bridge rose dark against a pearly sky. Whatever barges followed the tide towards the Port of London and the docks were still invisible to the September fog.

    Superintendent Thomas Pitt stood on the stormy wet ledge of Horseferry Stairs and looked at the punt which nudged gently against the lowest step. It was moored now, but an hour and a half ago, when the constable had first seen it, it had not been. Not that a drifting boat was of any interest to the head of the Bow Street police station, it was what lay in it, grotesque, like some obscure parody of Millais’s painting of Ophelia.

    The constable averted his eyes, keeping them studiously on Pitt’s face.

    “Thought we should report it to you, sir.”

    Pitt looked down at the body reclining in the punt, its wrists encased in manacles chained to the wooden sides, its ankles apart, chained also The long green robe looked like a dress, but so torn and distorted it was impossible to tell its original shape. The knees were apart, the head thrown back, mimicking ecstasy. It was a feminine pose, but the body was unmistakably male. He had been in his mid-thirties, fair-haired, with good features, and a well-trimmed mustache.

  35. “You know before you know, of course. You are bending over the dryer, pulling out the still-warm sheets, and the knowledge walks up your backbone. You stare at the man you love and you stare at nothing: he is gone before he is gone.”
    ~ OPEN HOUSE by Elizabeth Berg
    One of the most brilliant and captivating openings I’ve ever read!

  36. “It was 7 minutes after midnight.”
    ~ The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon
    First sentence: six words. Who isn’t going to read the second sentence? Which, in turn, makes you read the third sentence. And by the time you’ve read the sixth sentence, which is, “There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog,” you cannot stop!

  37. Maybe it’s just me, Carolyn, but I’m not sure I would read the second. What’s significant about a few minutes after midnight? I would have started with the sixth.

    Interesting wording too. “There was a…” is passive, and what does it mean that the garden fork is sticking OUT of the dog? He had swallowed it? Or is it sticking IN the dog?

  38. The description bores me to death–too many adjectives for my taste. And why does Pitt have to look at the punt? We’re in his POV, so if it’s described, we know he can see it. I would have started here, and then revealed who Pitt was:

    The constable averted his eyes, keeping them studiously on Pitt’s face.

    “Thought we should report it to you, sir.”

    Then I might even sit still for the poetic description of the weather, etc.

  39. What do you think of, “I had done the wrong thing, and I knew it” for a beginning sentence?

  40. I wonder how someone who had never read it would respond to “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Too philosophical? Too confusing? Or intriguing, compelling?

  41. That’s a great question. To people of faith it’s deep and compelling and precious, but to the uninitiated? I’m guessing different ones would find it all of the possibilities you list.

  42. First lesson for today, Janie: “fiction novel” is redundant. :)

    The first one is complete with the first phrase. The fact that the narrator has stated it tell us he/she knows it. It could be tightened even more to “I had done wrong,” but it wouldn’t have to be.

    I would fear the second one gives too much away and would delete the phrase “I look back (which is assumed) and thank God (which eliminates the tension of our wondering how things turn out), for it changed everything (ditto).”

    But it has some music this way:

    “As terrible as that summer was, it was when I learned to love my father.” Saying it was “the year” is a little confusing because you’re talking about the summer, not the whole year.

    Both are good ideas for openers, btw. :)

  43. I’ve read a lot of fiction in my life, but I honestly can’t say I have a favorite first line in any of the novels I’ve read. I just know whether or not the opening drags me into the story or leaves me feeling flat. It’s the same with non-fiction. I’m currently reading a non-fiction book by Sally Clarkson called The Mission of Motherhood. Her opening says, “As I look back to the memories of my childhood, a strong image that comes to my mind is that of my mother’s loving hands.” It’s not a dramatic opening, but I think it’s a good one because it immediately draws me in. I want to know more about her mother and why she remembers her hands being loving. I guess I get so focused on what I’m reading currently that I don’t always remember the first lines of what I’ve read previously. Something to work on. :) Thanks for the above examples.

  44. I think that works and shows that a compelling opener doesn’t have to be dramatic. It’s emotional and reminds many of us of our own mother’s hands. It did for me.

  45. They threw me off the hay truck about noon

    From James Cane’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

  46. Hello sir. Here’s the first line from my novel-in-progress:

    The boy saw the first cracks in his home on the wall of the room he shared with a younger brother.

  47. You’re right. Saying a fiction novel is like saying a nonfiction biography.

  48. I still like “did have.” It’s a variation on the sentence we hear all the time, “he didn’t have a pot to pee in”. Maybe italicize did to emphasize it. And then we don’t need “on it” at the end.

    Another tweak just came into my head. Maybe,

    Jerry Barkley’s family *did* have a pot to pee in. Jerry’s problem was making the payments.

  49. Rebecca blinked, tears boiled out of her eyes and snaked down her cheeks before shattering on the concrete floor.

  50. Not wanting to arouse Vishnu in case he hadn’t died yet, Mrs. Ashrani tiptoed down to the third step above the landing on which he lived, teakettle in hand.

  51. Good idea, but I had to read it several times to understand it. Vishnu being the name of an Indian deity, naturally I thought the character was worried about arousing him–but do gods die? And then tiptoeing “down” to arrive “above” seemed convoluted and too much stage direction (significance of the third step?), when it appears you just want to say she stopped or very quietly slipped past this man’s apartment. However, we’re told he lives on a landing. Is that what you mean? He’s actually living on the landing? (Probably not, but you see the problem.) Then, after planting in my mind this picture of a woman sneaking past a man’s door, you surprise me with the teakettle. The way it reads, Vishnu, teakettle in hand, is living on a landing.

    If I’m deducing this correctly [and your reader-only thinking should preclude a reader from having to work this hard :)], you’re merely trying to show a woman sneaking past a man’s apartment. Always lean toward just saying it. Maybe something like:

    Mrs. Ashrani, teakettle in hand, tiptoed down the stairs past Mr. Vishnu’s apartment, desperate not to arouse him. Was he even still alive?

  52. This isn’t bad, Joe, but it borders on on-the-nose writing ( Everybody knows what crying looks like, so why not just say Rebecca’s tears splashed on the concrete floor? That tells us everything you told us–we can imaging the blinking, the boiling, we know the tears came out of her eyes, that they snaked down her cheek, etc. Tears shattering is an interesting but illogical word picture. Liquid is not known for shattering until it has frozen into a solid first.

    Just as important, I would question beginning with someone weeping when we have zero to care about her. Some preliminary sentence or even a phrase might make us sympathetic–even a hint about something we can identify with. This could be something as suggestive as “Not again…” Whatever makes Rebecca weep has happened before–or something has–and readers will be introgued and want to know what it is.

    Not again. Rebecca didn’t think she could take it. Her tears splashed on the concrete floor.

  53. Love it. We want to know who “they” are, who “me” is, where we are that a hay truck is common, and, of course, what prompted the throwing. In nine words, the reader has four questions and choice but to keep reading.

  54. You’ve got it, Janie. But it’s a common error. I just saw it in the foreword of William Paul Young’s ‘Lies We Believe About God.’ The writer refers to Young’s ‘fiction novels.’ :)

  55. Hi, Nathaniel. As we’re in the boy’s point-of-view, you don’t need to say he “saw” anything. Whatever you describe, we know he sees. Then the “on the wall of the room” is a bit cumbersome, as is the less-than-specific reference to “a” younger brother.

    Maybe try something like this:

    The first cracks in the boy’s home appeared on the wall in the room he shared with his younger brother.

    Unless there’s a good reason to delay this, I’d name him in that first line rather than refer to him as “the boy.”

    Also, the line is more telling than showing. Here’s another option:

    The first cracks in David’s home appeared on the wall in his room. He plopped onto his little brother’s bed…

    That was we are shown he shares a room, not just told.

  56. I see what you are saying but I wou;ld like you thoughts on this sentence as to point of view and who is the perspective character. The hill people and the Mexicans arrived on the same day.

  57. Out of context I would have no idea. It appears the author is moving in with his camera character, starting with a wide shot, as it were. To my mind, the first words of the next sentence ought to be the name of the main character and start telling us what this is about. As it stands, the sentence raises a few questions, at least to me. Primarily I’m wondering why hill people are differentiated from Mexicans. Could a person not be both?

    Of course the author’s intent is to make the reader want to continue to find out where they arrived and why it’s significant both groups got there the same day. But given readers’ attention spans today, I wouldn’t go much more than a sentence further without getting to it.

  58. Up to about age fifteen I remember thinking it was a load of pretentious doubletalk (and I remember being thrilled by the book of Revelation at five and reading the Gospels According to Matthew and Luke at eight or nine, for comparison). It acquired meaning around the time I went to university.

  59. The one from Harry Potter resonates with me (“normal” was generally a term of profound contempt in my childhood) but it hadn’t stuck in my memory. (I’m now reading all the comments to see if I can remember one that nobody else has quoted first…the Lewis and Dickens lines leaped to my mind, and others quoted them.)

  60. Also, although I never even tackled the Bulwer-Lytton novel that used it first, I remember thinking it was a quote from Snoopy and letting it suck me into “A Wrinkle in Time,” in grade six: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

  61. For discussion: In (I forget which of) her nonfiction books, Madeleine L’Engle shared that the editor of the first U.K. edition inserted, to explain things to the tots, “…in a small village in the United States of America.”

    Do other people think that tops “It was a dark and stormy night,” or spoils it?

  62. I’m grateful Jerry you teach by written example, and not over explaining, very effective for me. I too appreciate you separating the fiction from non-fiction so well. Both in your blog and the guild, I’m learning a ton, a tremendous value.

  63. Brilliant! Thanks for taking the time to write about this topic. Super huge to me as I see how powerful and directing a great opening line can be.

  64. Yes, though that’s also Hollywood for you…the book mostly mentioned her hats and green eyes, but did specify in one or two places that she had *black* hair, not red.

  65. I don’t remember her choice of adjectives, if any, but remember her tone sounding distinctly miffed and the context being about rigidity about “age groups” and what needs to be explained and/or dumbed down to the kiddies. I suspect she would have agreed with both “intrusive” and “unnecessary.”

  66. It definitely raises questions. Very Indian…Vishnu the Hindu god, or Vishnu the sick patient, or are they to be identified with each other, Hindu style? “Arouse” from sleep, disinterest, or a non-sexual mood? And as our host observed, “the landing on which he lived, teakettle in hand”–he’s one of these very poor, sick people who actually “live” on the stairs or sidewalk, clutching a little container for people to drop coins into without worrying about touching his hand? (Identifying one of those people with a Hindu deity seems a very Indian thing.)

    I’d think twice–could I understand the story? Would it be worth the effort? I can see why someone feeling more confident would buy the book, though…and now, as you see, I’m piqued enough to wonder what *is* going on with this character.

  67. Okay, here’s my question. Which intro is best for my new novel A Christmas Carroll?
    THIS ONE: Graffiti clung like the scales of an ancient dinosaur to the crumbling walls of extinct shops, lonely restaurants and run down motels that had given in to renting rooms by the hour. Lights flashing, siren screaming, Officer Carroll Ridley still noticed that the colorful renderings were solid in some places now, spread over the last tagging with the same disregard the homeless guy bumbling unsteadily along the cracked sidewalk, seemed to hold for staying sober.

    OR THIS ONE: Officer Carroll Ridley and his partner dodged knots of curious onlookers loitering outside room #12 at The SeaView Motel. “Step away, folks,” he barked. “Clear the area.” A few backed off the walkway onto the motel parking lot, still too close to please him, but the angry words being hurled behind that door, the raw profanities and ear-splitting report of breakables being slammed into bits peppered the night air and took priority.

    I’m still partial to the dinosaur scales, but someone I respect (thank you, Becky) advised against it for the opening because it’s not the action…yet. So maybe even option #2 isn’t quite right? Should I start with the cops pounding on the motel door? Choices, choices…

  68. I suspect that “Agatha Christie” on the cover is the real hook for each of her mysteries, but your discussion reminded me of a memorable line from Charles Williams…I forget which of his surreal novels. I think it’s actually the end of chapter 1. There’s a conversation between two young women in which we gradually realize that they’re actually the ghosts rising slowly away from two freshly killed bodies, and as I recall the *last* line is “The two dead girls turned and left the park.”

  69. I like the dinosaur scales…I think an editor might introduce the officers (and some indication of the scene) on the front cover, but an editor *might* be more susceptible to the officers dodging the onlookers first and the dinosaur scales later. Just a guess. I’ve yet to sell any novels.

  70. I’m a Dean Koontz fan and almost every first line in almost every one of his books is a barbed hook. And if it isn’t in the first line, it’s somewhere in that first couple of pages (The Husband, for instance.) Unfortunately, I can’t quote a single one of them for you because I just moved and my books are still in boxes. On top of that, my very favorite first line is by a different author (whose name I don’t recall) in a title that escapes me. It lives in my memory this way: “In six minutes one of us would be dead.”

    Admittedly a great first line, but I can’t tell you a thing about the plot or the characters or even who it was that died. The first line is important but there has to be an intriguing story behind it told by characters who are so real the book stays with you long after you’ve turned that final page. Of course, this is why I am a loyal fan of Koontz. Every book I’ve read of his opens up in detail again when I think of it. There’s nothing I’d like more than to sit down to some of Odd Thomas’ fluffy pancakes one morning and hear him tell another tale about his adventures with Elvis or Frank Sinatra.

    I promise to come back with the title and author’s name for my favorite first line as soon as I find it in my moving mess. Great discussion, Jerry. Being able to compare everyone’s favorites all in one place has been really helpful. It definitely takes all kinds.

  71. Graffiti [do you mean fading posters? they would more likely appear to be clinging like scales] clung like the scales of an [‘the scales of’ is passive and could easily be tightened to ‘ancient dinosaur scales,’ but of course ‘ancient dinosaur’ is redundant] ancient dinosaur to the crumbling walls of extinct [shops, lonely restaurants, and run down motels that had given in to renting rooms by the hour / I’d tighten all this to ‘businesses.’] Lights flashing, siren screaming, Officer [did you really have to tell me he’s an officer if he’s driving a car with flashing lights and a siren?] Carroll Ridley [you’ve kind of melded car and officer here; unless his personal lights and siren are going :)] still noticed [I’m not buying it; he’s in emergency mode and noticing graffiti details?] that the colorful renderings were solid in some places now, spread over the last tagging with the same disregard the homeless guy bumbling unsteadily along the cracked sidewalk,[no need for comma here] seemed to hold for staying sober. [and Becky’s right; this is a lot of focus on a setting detail]

    I’d do this:

    Faded posters clung like dinosaur scales to the crumbling walls of extinct businesses, as Carroll Ridley sped into the area, lights flashing and siren screaming.

    Ridley and his partner broke through knots of [delete ‘curious,’ because 1–it’s assumed and 2–you’re not in their POV so you can’t say this unequivocally] onlookers [delete ‘loitering’; you just said the officers broke through knots of them and that they were onlookers; loitering is what onlookers do] outside room #12 at The SeaView Motel. [the following is on-the-nose and so goes without saying; they broke through them, so we can assume all this: “Step away, folks,” he barked. “Clear the area.” A few backed off the walkway onto the motel parking lot, still too close to please him, but the] [the following is written-ese, repetitious, wordy] angry words being [passive]hurled behind that door, the raw profanities and ear-splitting report of breakables being [passive] slammed into bits peppered the night [surprise; establish time of day earlier] air and took priority.

    Something like this [I’m treating this not as an alternate opener but as the next paragraph]:

    Ridley and his partner broke through knots of onlookers outside room #12 at The SeaView Motel. From inside came ear-splitting profanities and something shattering.

  72. Thanks for your comments, Priscilla. I’d hate to toss the dinosaur completely (guess I’m not ready to kill all my darlings) so I’d thought there might be another place for it. I’d wanted to describe the part of town the motel was in, and show how observant the officer is even under pressure, but all of that can happen in a later spot.

    BTW, your cat is charming.

  73. Thank you! It’s actually a Morguefile image, but it commemorates a cat who lived and died before digital cameras existed, and who *was* charming.

  74. L’eagle’s Wrinkle In Time trilogy was marketed to kids because adults didn’t “get it” but children did. She wrote it for adults.

  75. Thanks, Jerry. So now in addition to POV switches I can tell I need to dig out the passive, get closer to the action. It helps so much to know WHAT TO LOOK FOR when I’m caught up in the story I’m trying to tell. Hope my readers get that caught up in it. And if I can keep a consistent POV and leave passive behind, I think they will. Appreciate your comments.

  76. @jbjdisqus:disqus It’s quirky because there is no Chapter 1. It opens with 2. like that, so right away something is off. Also the number seven is not written out properly, but as an Arabic 7, so that’s weird, too. And the cover shows the silhouette of a dog upside down with legs straight up, kinda funny looking.

    First paragraph: It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears’s house. Its eyes were closed. I looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer, for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.

    On page four: “This is a murder mystery novel.” But that’s funny, too, because it is not a mystery about who killed the dog. It is a look inside the mind of a boy who has autism.

  77. My only problem structurally was the teakettle. I usually read books from title, flap copy, then first sentence/paragraph. That probably informed me that Vishnu was not the god but a lower class or untouchable and so as I read the first sentence I assumed the poor man was indeed sleeping on the third step above the landing where he lived. As I read the sentence I was thinking, “My goodness. He lives on a stairwell landing, yet he’s sleeping on a step? Why isn’t he sleeping on the landing? Did he try to make it to Mrs. Ashrani’s but couldn’t make it? Is he, in fact, dead? And how different is this culture wherein a person would so causally (tiptoeing) bring tea to a person who was probably going to die on the stairwell at some point? (in case he hadn’t died yet)” I became intrigued and knew from that one sentence I had to read the book, I would have rewritten the sentence: Not wanting to arouse Vishnu in case he hadn’t died yet, Mrs. Ashrani, teakettle in hand, tiptoed down to the third step above the landing on which he lived.

  78. You deduce she’s taking HIM the tea? Then she WOULD want to rouse him, no? What makes you want to read more makes me want to find something else. :)

  79. Well, if it’s an experimental book–a look inside the mind of a boy with autism–all the rules go out the window. I am fascinated by autism (I have a granddaughter who is autistic), but I would have little patience for an entire novel written by her. I’d be charmed by it starting with chapter two and then being a sort of stream of consciousness, but a whole book of that? Mercy.

  80. There were no satellites, no Google searches, no GPS to assist us. The island was only 20 feet above water and we had to find it at night.
    We faced a critical challenge: navigation.

  81. The setup is intriguing, Robert, but “There was…” is about as passive as you could begin.We know what Google means (searches). We know GPS “assists us.” If it’s an island, you don’t need to mention water. And that third sentence merely restates what you have just deftly showed. If the reader isn’t with you by now, you’ve lost him anyway. I recommend diving right into it:

    No satellites, no Google, no GPS. The island rose only 20 feet above the surface, and we had to find it in the dark.

  82. It’s fun to chat through this stuff, isn’t it. You have the perfect attitude, Carolyn. I neither require or expect you to agree with everything, just to consider the view of someone long in the game, and in the tooth. Writers who bristle at any suggestion are unlikely to grow.

  83. A friend of mine who knows her said she told him ‘Wrinkle…’ had been rejected more than 25 times before it found a home.

  84. A friend who knows her said she told him ‘Wrinkle…’ had been rejected more than 25 times before it found a home.

  85. No question about it, The western suburbs of Chicago, especially Naperville, needed JOYFUL NOISE. We were determined to make it happen.

  86. Yeah Jerry. I think I caught on quickly The next sentences must have cleared it up for me when I read it. Here’s Michael Gorra (NYT Book review) started his review: Vishnu lies dying on the landing of a small apartment building in Bombay, his hand ”outstretched, as if trying to pull his body up the next step.” He has vomited and ”soiled himself” as well. But don’t worry about him; his problems have pretty much ended on this novel’s first page, while those of Mrs. Asrani, who stands over him, ”teakettle in hand,” are only just beginning. ”Not wanting to arouse Vishnu in case he hadn’t died yet,” she has tiptoed out with the cup of tea that she gives him each morning and now faces some difficult choices. First, who will pay to have the mess cleaned up? And then, what about the tea? She’s certain Vishnu won’t be able to drink it and hates ”the idea of good tea being wasted,” but she also knows that ”giving tea to a dying man was surely a very propitious thing to do.” Mrs. Asrani fills the cup without checking to see ”if Vishnu was alive or dead”; with her duty done, ”it didn’t really matter.”

  87. Thank you for saying that. I’ve prayed for years that the Lord would make me part of a team. I am a writer, like it or not, and I’m eager to improve but that’s harder to do as a team of one. An agent with a vision, an editor who believes I will write the twenty-plus books I’ve got waiting in the wings on my computer. I’m so eager to tell all the stories on my heart, but at the rate I’m going they’ll be published posthumously, which will seriously cut into any signing parties! God’s made me a writer. He’s clearly said, “You tell the stories. I’ll take care of the rest,” and so I am and I believe He is. It’s almost funny how little time means to Him who made it. I trust Him, and I write, knowing He cares about me. (Long in the tooth? Not yet, my friend. Not yet.)

  88. My imagination really got me in trouble two years ago, but what an adventure it was!

  89. Thank you for posting such a great topic and for participating in our discussion. I am loving the Guild as well.

  90. This needs some serious tightening and maybe a different tone. The first dependent clause is a cliche, the capital T in ‘the’ is misplaced, the western suburbs is too big an area for the reader to get his head around, ‘joyful noise’ is insider church lingo (okay if that’s where you want to focus), and ‘we’ makes for a weak POV. Does this force the reader to keep going? How about this?

    Don’t blame me. I thought Naperville needed some serious joyful noise.

    I rallied my friends in that suburb west of Chicago, and…

  91. I’d keep reading, John, though I’d suggest you lose the passive ‘it was’. And you want to immediately get to showing rather than telling. Oh, I think this is stronger without the flabby ‘really,’ too. Maybe just recast the order a bit:

    Two years ago my imagination got me in trouble. But what an adventure!

  92. Thanks very much Jerry, that’s an expert’s advice and I receive it with all my heart.

  93. The hill people – line is from A Painted House by John Grisham. The next is, It was a Wednesday,early in September 1952.

  94. Bizarre that I read that book in its day and have zero recollection of the opener. Wonder how it would have been edited had his name not been on the manuscript.

  95. If/when you’re ready, consider my Writers Guild.

    Guild Features
    I would urge you to get on the notification list (, at least, as there’s no obligation, but the team WILL let you know when the registration window opens. The stuff already archived on the Guild site alone will be worth way more than a one-month registration.
    • A Live Online Workshop (with 1 per month already archived since January, 2016)
    • A live Office Hours session (where I answer members’ questions for at least an hour and guarantee an answer in the Forum on our site if yours doesn’t get answered during the session)
    • Manuscript Repair & Rewrite sessions, wherein I have recorded myself editing a member’s first page, along with rationale for every change (the most popular feature we offer)
    • A monthly Master Class, a recording of my interview with a publishing expert, asking all the questions you would ask
    • Free access to two of my courses: Fiction Jumpstart and Nonfiction Jumpstart—each worth $149 alone
    • Lots of Bonus Material (manuscript proposal examples, etc.)
    • A Forum where members interact with each other daily and occasionally with me; already people have found writing partners, formed virtual critique groups, etc.

    My goal is to make it a ridiculous bargain, and as I say, all those things listed above already have archived versions since January, and you would have 24/7 access to dive into those.

    Meanwhile, my blog site ( is always free, of course.

  96. Yes, but then every time I read one of these tips, I go back to see if I’ve done that and start editing again! ARGH! Back to it!

  97. I am reading your takes on other people’s writing and I think I am learning a lot from them. I wish I could get your course, but my funds are weak,but my will is strong,I chase the rabbit but the road is long. I’ll look and read what you have to say, I’ll hang around till the six black horses take me away.

  98. Thanks for your kind comments, Richard. Hopefully there’s a lot for you here at my free blog site.

  99. You’re welcome, Joe. That attitude gives you a great advantage. Criticism stings, but it’s how we grow.

  100. A thousand years ago, I was on faculty with you at Mt. Hermon (in the 1990’s) and took one of your classes then. I also signed up for a class through the Guild a year or so ago but never even started it before “life” got in the way. I didn’t finish. (My bad, not yours.) Publishing has changed so much in the years I’ve been in dry-dock I fully get why signing up with the Guild is the best route for me. I just moved from CA to NV and am still emptying boxes. Then I’m headed to Mt. Hermon in April. When I get back I’ll begin a search for writers here I can connect with, and I’m going to figure out how I can do this…for me, for my passion, in obedience to God’s commission to “tell the stories.” The better they are, the clearer the message. Thanks, Jerry. I’ll be back (without a Schwarzenegger accent). God bless you and your generosity with other writers.

  101. I have been so inspired by this discussion I have written a short story using the first line, “The day the two frogs ate the library was a big day in the city of Alachua, a very big day.” It features two milk frogs on display in our Alachua library.

  102. Ha! Love it.

    I’d tighten it just a bit:

    The day two frogs ate the library was a big day in Alachua, a very big day.

  103. I agree with leaving out the words “in the city of” ordinarily but both the city and county are named Alachua and, though it could be assumed it was the city and not the county, I went for leaving it in for clarity. It may be totally unnecessary because locals will probably know and non-locals won’t care. A bit of overthinking on my part. Thanks for your reminder to keep it tight wherever possible

  104. These are the opening sentences of my proposed book. I was actually thinking of rewriting it. “Carts without horses. Pilot-less planes. Appliances unplugged. Christians without prayer. Ineffective indeed! Today we neglect our greatest superpower, which is deep, meaningful prayer, yet God empowers all aspects of our Christianity through it.”

    I appreciate your suggestions.

  105. Thanks, Jerry! I appreciate your taking the time to give me an expert critique of the line. Other than those few tweaks, I’m glad it seems you kept the line itself intact. It gives me a bit of confidence!

    (Oh and yes, I read your novel that started with that line. And I thought it was clever!) ;)

  106. “It’s one thing to boast of bravery when breaking into grandpa’s attic, a village of vipers, and quite another to look each devil in the eye.”

  107. Absolutely love your thoughts about prayer. I might try to make your opening lines more parallel to one another. For example:

    “Carts without horses. Planes without pilots…”

    And then, maybe not give your secret away so soon by telling the reader what they’re about to read. I can imagine some Ch’tns not reading further, saying, “Oh! I’ve heard all that before.” Know what I mean? Just a few thoughts. :)

    But Jerry will know better, for sure! And ‘good luck’ as you keep working on it.

    F.B. Meyer:
    “The greatest tragedy of life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer.”

    Adoniram Judson:
    “God loves importunate prayer so much that He will not give us much blessing without it.”

  108. Thank you Theodore for that suggestion. Because of this thread, I will be going back to the beginning and be trying to make every sentence keep the hook. So you know, my book is about the symbolism of the Tabernacle incense, the prayer principles they reveal, and the Lord’s Prayer which is a perfect example of that patter, as its principles exactly match the incense symbolism, and in perfect order.

    This first paragraph I’ve left for last to edit because I am not real pleased with it. I was thinking of scrapping it altogether, but it handles the “need” of continuing on. I was contemplating moving my second paragraph up which continues that need. Here it is…

    ” I know the necessity of genuine prayer, but why is it be so elusive? When I try to clutch its heart, it escapes my grasp as if it were smoke. I can relate to the apostles in the garden during their last prayer meeting with Jesus as they wrestled for spiritual depth … yet fell asleep in their prayers. “What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak“, says Christ (Matthew 26:40-41 KJV). As Jesus rebukes His friends, he also chastises my heart and convicts me of my prayer shortcomings. I see the need to refocus upon the foundation of prayer that Jesus taught His children to have. My desire is to strengthen myself to pray in a manner that pleases Him. I long for those compelling moments when I am able to step into my God’s sanctuary and drink in His glorious presence as He anoints me with His power. Do you share this desire? Then let us journey together.”

    Any thoughts?

  109. Good thoughts! I’m wondering if your WIP might be suited as…a devotional? You might google ‘Jerry’s name and how to write devotionals’…..if that interests you.

    I’m sure many don’t know/understand the truths you are wanting to get across…but perhaps breaking each idea up into short devotionals (or chapters) might be an easy way for readers to grasp it. So sad that many now’days don’t pray much anymore.

    My goal in writing is to ‘make people hungry’ for truths they’ve forgotten about or haven’t discovered yet. In other words, we must hook them in every paragraph as we go along. Hard task!

  110. “In the broiling summer of ’89, the McGuire family killed each other, as ancient arguments flared.”

  111. There’s an errant word in there somewhere, right?

    I know the necessity of genuine prayer, but why is it be so elusive?

    And I’d opt for a more conversational, personal tone, like: I know I need to pray more, and genuinely…

  112. Yes, it was supposed to read ” but why is it so elusive?” with option for “but why can it be so elusive”. Taking your advice on adding a more personal tone, I will start a new thread with an option I had also considered. Thanks for your input Mr. Jenkins.

  113. Wanted to thank you for sharing your insights and experience. I just finished the “next to final” draft of my novel and set it aside. In the meantime, I’ve been revisiting your training sessions, manuscript rewrites, etc. and realized that the first chapter of my novel is much more powerful than my prologue. So even at this late stage in my novel, I’m eliminating the prologue which occurs a year earlier, and will rewrite it as a condensed flashback.

  114. It continues…

    “Faces reddened. Franklin pulled the trigger and blasted his mother and father against the trees. Grandma wailed. Lunging, she rammed a knife into her grandson’s neck, and hovered over his bloody body. She dug the knife into her own throat, and collapsed. Grandpa, and his eleven-year-old granddaughter, huddled in the bushes, terrorized.

    All of it pretend, of course, as the McGuires practiced their parts for the upcoming Medieval Reenactment Festival, in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.”

    Is it too gory? Not a good hook for an opening line? Too something or other…..?

  115. It’s not too gory, depending on genre. But that it turns out to be pretend is not intriguing, just disappointing. Like finding out a dramatic opening is a dream. Editors, agents, and readers don’t mind a little misdirection and omission for the a nice surprise. But they don’t want to be disappointed.

  116. (Opening line above reworked. It’s for real, not pretend):

    “In the broiling summer of ’89, young Birdy McGuire witnessed the brutal slaying of a Medieval Reenactment peasant, in the Adirondack Mountains. But she wouldn’t realize it for another two days.”

  117. One broiling summer day in 1989, young Birdy McGuire saw a Medieval peasant reenactor brutally murdered. But she didn’t realize it was real until two days later.

  118. So many lovely first liners in these. My favorite is this: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Taken from The Go Between by LP Hartley.
    Thank you so much for helping us with first lines. I’m working on a manuscript at the moment and would love any suggestions you have on this first line. – Flynn McCann’s mind might
    have been on the woman he loved had his lungs not been on fire.

  119. I like the elements, but something about the wording is a bit cumbersome. The ‘might have been’ and the “had…not been’ seem to compete and each phrase is anchored by a passive, state-of-being verb [have/had]. Of course, I’m not sure without seeing more whether you mean his lungs were literally afire or he was oxygen deprived for some other reason–and my not knowing is OK, as I assume you’ll explain that quickly. But not knowing impedes my ability to suggest a fix. Actually, I think the juxtaposition between his physical crisis and his emotions is good, but it might be even better if he DID think of her at that moment.

    Flynn McCann’s lungs burned, but all he could think of was the woman he loved. [Then, depending on what has caused his trauma, you can go either way with the next line. “If this was it for Flynn, would [name] miss him?” Or, “Gasping, he dove for cover…”

  120. “Drunk on bloodlust, Lord Lyyar churned the underworld, while the giant screen displayed a young female God-follower. The hordes screeched for more butchery.”

  121. Don’t tell me; show me. I want to see him and what he’s doing, what it means to churn the underworld, what he sees on the screen. Don’t tell me they screeched for her butchery (and I’m guessing you mean “her butchering”; her butchery would be her capacity to butcher), let me hear what they’re saying.

  122. “Engorged with bloodlust, Lord Lyyar hurled burning lava, and smashed walls with his fists. The underworld’s surveillance screen showed a young female God-follower deep in prayer, refusing to get up until heaven answered. The hordes screeched. “Suicide her.””

  123. Well, from lack of response, I think I have my answer concerning this alternate opening. Possibly confusing? Uninteresting? Lacking credibility at first glance? I do have a story about God using my cat to jump-start my prayer life.

  124. Let’s hear it!
    My lack of interest had to do with not liking cats…prefer pups.
    But prayer…I love!!! :)

  125. Thank you so much for the suggestion. I love it! Much better. I think a global search of this type of thing will help enormously. Some writers are probably with me on this one, but what is it that big publishers look for in a manuscript when submitting? I’m looking for ways to prune the deadwood and get rid of bad habits. Thank for your time.

  126. Sorry, Troy. I answered on another machine and it must not have gone through. I would change “began teaching” to “taught,” and then I would immediately get into what you mean. Prayer is, obviously, a very serious topic, but God speaking through a cat–without the context that can come only from you–sound frivolous on the surface. It’s a surprise start that will gain some attention, but the readers who need it most will not want to be held in suspense long.

  127. A global search of what?

    Publishers look for a great idea and good writing, following a format they spell out in their respective submission guidelines. In the general market, publishers list what they’re looking for here:

    And in the Inspirational market, here:

  128. I would tell the story immediately, and what I learned from the experience. (We had finished loading the moving truck and wanted to load our pets and get on the road, but we could not find our cat, a cat that never left our yard and came meowing everytime we called him. We looked and called him for over 6 hours. After meeting back at the house, while heartbroken I suggested that we ask God to help us. It was the first time since becoming a Christian 4 months previous that I had asked for anything. Less than a second after my “amen”, the cat came into our open front door with a loud meow. Lots of lessons learned.) This is the second landmark prayer I’ve had, the first of course being my prayer to receive Christ.

  129. That sounds like a good anecdote, Troy, but I think an editor would find the opening sentence misleading. I thought it meant the cat spoke or voiced God’s words. Naturally, you don’t want that confusion. So maybe:

    God first taught me to pray by using our pet cat [name].

  130. I see what you mean Mr. Jenkins. I was trying to use the “surprise” opening. Thank you. I see it was more “shock” factor and misleading.

  131. In all the years homicide detective Odessa Hitchcock lived in New Orleans, she never saw a hurricane commit murder. That what I am starting my story with Jerry, tell what do you think, please.

  132. I smiled at the basic idea….it threw me into ‘conspiracy mode.’

    You calling your story “Katrina”? :-)

  133. Not at all Theodore, the title is The Paper Messiah — I have this crazy idea about a love story about two people who are on different sides of a wall. One is a woman cop and the other is a collector for a loan shark. He is hoping to win her over to him, but she doesn’t trust him because of his background. They met after he has been shot alone with four other men outside a bar in New Orleans. I guess the backdrop of the story is a hurricane is moving in on the city.

  134. Hmm, I don’t know, Richard. It’s not at all uncommon for people to die at the hands of a hurricane, but ‘murder’ implies intent–which is illogical. The bigger problem, though, is the distance of the narrator from the lead character. I would recommend deep POV, which has a tone more like this:

    Odessa Hitchcock kept an eye on the sky. Tracking murderers for a living was one thing–Mother Nature was another.

  135. I like your idea Jerry. I lived in New Orleans for 43 years and now I live in Florida over 28. The story starts before the hurricaine advance on the city and if the storm is a few days out(say three) the sky doesn’t change until the storm gets a little closer. The wind on the other hand picks up, and starts to intensify the closer it gets to land.

  136. That’s the beauty of fiction, Richard. You’re in charge. Start the story when the hurricane is about to hit. You want that tension right up front.

  137. Sounds like a plan I like it Jerry. I already have the parts about the oaks’ branches trying to rip apart from the tree because of the force of the wind.I just need to kick everything forward sooner than later. Thanks a lot, you will be responsible for more deaths in my story sooner then I planned. It’s on your head, thank you once again.

  138. Theodore, I am an old guy with lot ideas for this story. Never had much schooling to do this but I look at this as a small speed bump. Maybe my story will never be known to the world, but I will write it anyway. My tail is straight, and if you shine your flashlight forward you may miss the players up to no good in the dark.

  139. Yes, tell your story anyway. Sounds like you’ve got plenty of fun ideas cookin.’ By the way, there are tons of articles all over the internet that will help you write your story well. Maybe you’ve already discovered a bunch of them: point-of-view; your outline to follow; character development; tension building…and so much more. Jerry has a fabulous collection of concise articles on his blog that you can go way back and read. :-)

  140. Long ago I learned how important the first line is. Whoever it was emphasized that the first sentence is the most important in the whole story/novel and the last one is the second most, and it’s especially sweet if they somehow “rhyme” emotionally. So I randomly selected a shelf of fiction in the library and read the first line in every book on that shelf! What an eye opener.

    Here are my favorites of my own first lines:
    I’ve heard that Los Angelinos don’t trust air they can’t see; I believe New Yorkers don’t trust air they can’t hear.
    Gee, I wish horsewhipping hadn’t gone out of favor.
    Aunt Addie collected ghosts the way other people collected sea shells.
    Still rattled, Claudie stood rooted behind the overturned chair. (This is my latest WIP and I don’t intend to clarify what happened before this moment for many pages, even chapters, with perhaps a crumb or two now and then.)

  141. I like that last one, but I would want to see it start with Claudie and use more active language:

    Claudie planted herself behind the toppled chair.

  142. I will have to see if I can find them. I think the devil made me come up with all my off the wall ideas, that what people at church say anyway. All my life I have never looked at things like other people do. I guess it’s my background of growning up in the streets, I learned early to take care of myself. Most of my life I have made others happy, at this point in my lifeI would like to try for me.

  143. Here’s the link to Jerry’s blog. The dated articles work their way ‘backwards’ all the way to December of 2009. A wealth of material that will help you…all of us…to grasp the necessary ingredients for ‘baking this cake.’ For newcomers, it takes a while for all of it to sink in. But Wow…the more you study, the more your writing improves, so that it can carry the ‘biggest punch’ that readers will love. Put your ‘off the wall ideas’ to the test, and get the feedback you need. It will be fun. :-)

  144. Thanks Theodore, I’ll check it out when I get back from my heart doctor later today. My off the wall stuff is more short stories right now. All of them have twist ending, some under 1500 words, maybe I could add to them I have ti see if the stories will hold the extra words.

  145. You’re very welcome, Jerry!
    Online articles are so numerous, that I’ve had to unsubscribe to bloggers who are too dang wordy (I already know how to be that all by myself…LOL). One of the things I love about your blog is that the info is short and sweet, and packs a punch. I don’t have the energy for anything that goes on, and on, and on. :-)

  146. Normally I would have phrased it more actively – I have been sensitized to avoid state-of-being verbs, even tho I just did one here – but the very point here is that she has been frozen in INaction by what just happened that knocked that chair over. The rest of the paragraph: “After a long moment, she stooped to stand it upright, yet her hands clung to it as to a life raft. Not knowing what to do next, she scanned the unfinished remains of an ordinary evening meal around the table. But Minnie would routinely clear all that away upon Claudie’s bell. Except for that chair and the cigarette stubbed and soggy with gravy on the nearest plate, nothing remained of the nasty scene just past. Nothing reflected the disquiet that fluttered wildly within her. ” I would hope the reader would catch that Claudie and the chair are both victims and that the chair is a metaphor for her mental state. She can right the chair but how does she right herself?

    I considered “toppled” but that says it’s fallen over, passive. “Overturned” suggests somebody knocked it over, an action.

    As a newbie I must ask, have you done a discussion on those evil, habitual, empty crutch words we get so tired of reading? I’m sure every writer has a personal collection. I have resorted to word search to count how many times I use such a word as just, since, like / as if (making simile instead of metaphor), It (It was a dark and stormy…).

  147. I love twist endings. O. Henry was famous for twist endings to his short stories. Look him up and read some of them. You will feel right at home.

  148. You may be writing to take care of yourself, I know that’s a major part of what drives me, but by sharing your stories you will still be making others happy. Some habits we can never lose.

  149. After a long moment,[vague and unnecessary; you’re writing chronologically, so naturally this happens next–and no one know how long a long moment is] she stooped to stand it upright, yet her hands [too much stage direction; just say she clung to it, and we’ll know it was with her hands] clung to it as to a life raft. Not knowing what to do next,[omit; slows the action, adds nothing] she scanned [you’re in her POV so you never have to say she looked, saw, scanned, etc.; just describe it and we’ll know she saw it] the unfinished remains [redundant] of an ordinary evening meal around the table. [tedious; bet you can do this with a word or two] But Minnie would routinely clear all that away upon Claudie’s bell. Except for that chair and the cigarette stubbed [assumed] and soggy with gravy [nice] on the nearest [relevant?] plate, nothing remained of the nasty scene just past. Nothing reflected the disquiet that fluttered wildly within her.

    She stooped to stand it up but clung to it like a life raft. But for that chair and a cigarette soggy with gravy on one of the plates, nothing remained of what had just happened. No one would have had an inkling of the disquiet within her.

  150. Gosh, I hate to be recalcitrant, since your rewrite suggestions are usually excellent. This rewrite is of course tighter, but you have replaced all the color with routine phrases unto cliche. I prefer to write more like Maeve Binchley than Mickey Spillane. I strive to slip description and setting into the action so I don’t have to stop to explain. I used “a long moment” BECAUSE nobody knows how long it is, especially a person who is upset. Sequence isn’t as important here as timing. Yes “nearest plate” is relevant as the unfinished cigarette and knocked over chair relate to the same person. Clues, my dear Watson. And pray, grammatically, how would a chair cling to a life raft? So I’ve tried the paragraph again. (Minnie can wait.)

    Still rattled, Claudie stood rooted behind the overturned chair. She forced her breathing to steady before she stooped to stand the chair upright, yet clung to it as to a life raft. Except for that chair and the cigarette soaking up gravy and green beans on the nearest plate, nothing remained of the nasty scene that had disrupted dinner. Nothing reflected the turmoil that fluttered wildly within her.

  151. Still rattled [don’t tell me, show me], Claudie stood rooted [redundant] behind the overturned chair. She forced her breathing to steady [you mean she forced herself to breathe more steadily? now you’re showing, making your opening two words unnecessary] before she stooped to stand the chair upright, yet clung to it as to a life raft. [I concede your phrase is better there] Except for that chair and the cigarette soaking up gravy and green beans [it’s soaking up green beans? pick one descriptor–two cuts your power in half] on the nearest plate,[if you mean her plate, say so] nothing remained of the nasty scene [again you’re telling and not showing; if you’re planning to parcel this out as you mentioned previously–which I like–I would drop the ‘nasty,’ as what you HAVE shown makes that clear] that had disrupted dinner. [do we need to be told that whatever happened disrupted dinner when there’s an overturned chair and a soggy cigarette on a plate?] Nothing reflected the turmoil that fluttered wildly within her. [that last falls into the language of writtenese; I would recommend telling what’s happening inside her rather than explaining what’s not happening (nothing reflecting the turmoil); and ‘fluttered’ juxtaposes with ‘wildly’; if ‘raged’ is too pedestrian for you, come up with a good one-word substitute]

    This might help:

  152. I just wanted to see if you’re awake. I read Mr. Porter about 63 years ago, but he hasn’t done any new stuff lately.

  153. Okay! We’re getting somewhere. The two nothings have had their teeth pulled by eliminating her survey of the table. Nothing in the room reflected…? And raged wasn’t what I objected to, it was the cliched “No one would have had an inkling…” Especially since anyone would have seen how distressed she was. Guess you’ve never had green beans that were simmered all day with fatback and come out all shiny and juicy. I wanted two foods under that cigarette to show that neither it nor dinner had been finished.

    Claudie stood rooted behind the overturned chair. She focused on breathing more steadily before she stooped to stand the chair upright, yet clung to it as to a life raft. Except for that chair and the cigarette soaking up gravy on his plate, only the turmoil she fought to control remained of the man’s outburst.

    At this rate, my poor little unborn novel will be lucky to reach flash fiction size!

  154. “Suicide her.” Underworld hordes screeched, as their venom-filled missiles struck her image on the giant screen. Lord Lyyar hurled flaming boulders, and smashed stadium walls with his fists. Peering down into a narrow shaft, he plotted throwing Birdy McGuire to the bottom.

  155. So did I. Along with Bradbury, E.A. Poe, Lovecraft & H.G. Wells. I even read Animal Farm to the alarm of a couple of my teachers.

  156. “Boiling with bloodlust, Lord Lyyar hurled burning lava, and smashed stadium walls with his fists, demanding a kill. The underworld’s giant surveillance screen showed a young female God-follower deep in prayer, refusing to get up until heaven answered. Hordes screeched. “Suicide her.””

    Or is this better???

    “Suicide her.” Underworld hordes screeched, as their hate-filled missiles struck her image on the giant screen. Lord Lyyar hurled flaming boulders, and smashed stadium walls with his fists. Peering down into a narrow shaft, he plotted throwing Birdy McGuire to the bottom.”

  157. Boiling with bloodlust [delete; telling], Lord Lyyar hurled burning lava [redundant], and smashed stadium walls with his fists, demanding a kill [telling; let me hear his words]. The underworld’s [resist the urge to explain; it should become obvious this is the underworld] giant surveillance screen showed a young female [good] God-follower [don’t tell; show; let us her her prayer and we’ll deduce that she’s a God-follower] deep in prayer [don’t tell; show], refusing [let us her her pray this] to get up until heaven answered. Hordes screeched. “Suicide her.” [what does this mean? suicide is not a verb, and it’s self-inflicted by definition]

    Or is this better???

    “Suicide her.” [see question above] Underworld hordes screeched, as their hate-filled missiles [we don’t have to be told they’re hate-filled if we see them raging against what they’re hearing; and what are these missiles?] struck her image on the giant screen. Lord Lyyar hurled flaming boulders,[delete comma] and smashed stadium walls with his fists. Peering down [you’re in his point of view so you don’t have to say he looked or peered or saw; describe it and we’ll know he sees it] into a narrow shaft, he plotted throwing Birdy McGuire to the bottom.”

  158. “Lord Lyyar hurled flaming boulders and smashed stadium walls with his fists. His gaping mouth thundered. “I will strangle her.” The giant surveillance screen showed a young female on her knees. Sweat beaded her forehead. Tears drenched the cushion. “Oh! Kristos. I know You love me, and perfect love casts out all fear. I will not get up until You show me how to overcome this depression.” Throwing rocks at her image on the screen, winged generals and runty imps, screeched. “Kill her.” Crimson-black vapor swirled upward from the narrow shaft, into Lyyar’s nostrils. “You crossed the line, McGuire. I will throw you to the bottom of this pit.”

  159. I would delete “with his fists,” because if he’s hurling flaming boulders, they will do the job.

    I would change “His gaping mouth” to “He,” because if He thunders, we assume he does it with his mouth and that his mouth would be open.

    I would start a new paragraph after that quote. I would add “on” after “beaded.” I would change “get up” to “rise” for clarity.

    Then another new paragraph. See my rework of that too.

    Lord Lyyar hurled flaming boulders and smashed stadium walls, thundering, “I will strangle her!”

    The giant surveillance screen showed a young woman on her knees, weeping, sweat beading on her forehead. “Oh, Kristos! I know You love me and that perfect love casts out all fear. I will not rise until You deliver me from this depression.”

    Winged generals and runty imps threw rocks at the screen
    and screeched, “Kill her!”

    Crimson-black vapor swirled up from a narrow shaft below Lyyar. “You have crossed the line, McGuire!” he raged. “I will cast you into this pit!”

  160. Thank you! Stephen King talks about this in “Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences.” The opening sentence in “Jesus Among Secular Gods” reads, It was years ago when I was speaking at an openly and avowedly atheistic institution that i was fascinated by a questioner who asked what on earth I meant by the term God. I have work to do.

  161. personally, I think you’re blessed he took the time. I wish he would dissect my first novel like that. I’m sure it needs it. And the tighter version is better by the way. Just saying.

  162. How about this one from Pick ‘n’ Mix Mums, my first children’s novel which was shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize. “The rope I was clinging to creaked as it slid a wee bit further doon the wall.”(yes, it’s Scottish)…or this one from my first adult historical fiction novel – a WIP. “Sarah’s eyes, wide with terror, scan the stark unfamiliarity of her prison.”

  163. My favorite of all time: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

    My current WIP: “The first time Dad picked me up at the Evansville airport in his 1976 yellow Corvette, I should have recruited a fairy godmother. Not that I believed in such things, or much of anything.”

  164. Thanks for all the help, Jerry. I started my autobiography for family only. After a number of webinars, reading parts of suggested books by Jerry on writing, figured I should reach a wider audience, especially for the many churches/friends who had supported us for our forty-give years in Japan.
    My opening: “What have we done?” my husband Peter asked, as we settled in the jumbo. Teary-eyed, I looked out on the tarmac of Fukuoka International Airport, but people and vehicles became a blur. The jumbo roared to life and backed out. I wiped my eyes so I could get a last look at Japan, our home for the past forty-five years. As the plane lifted into the air, I felt my insides bursting, and my body began to shake with heaving sobs. What had we done?

  165. Hi Jerry, I started my first novel about 14 years ago. I have picked it up a few times since, but have never finished it. Would this beginning lead you to read my book?

    “The wind and snow; the cold and the quietness flooded the long road as he walked home. Pulling his hat down tighter and bending against the wind, he trudged onward. He never saw the big cat in the tree. He only felt the pain and then the darkness.”

    Thank you, I am just wondering if I should finish the book. I value your opinion, as I have read most of your books and they were real page turners.

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