Monday, July 4, 2011

Opening lines

Opening lines. Writers obsess over them, redraft them, searching for that perfect combination of introduction, hook, and stage-setting. I've analyzed eight openers from YA novels, below.

It hit me when I was power walking on the treadmill at home, watching a Friends rerun for about the ninetieth time.
--Randa Abdel-Fattah, Does My Head Look Big in This?
We don't know what hit her, but something did. Something is about to change in this character's life. And since she's watching old reruns repeatedly, it sounds like she needs a change. The tone in this sentence is closer than comedic to tragic.

It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.
--Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak
Firsts and beginnings are a great place to start. And already this character has trouble. She is not rushing into high school with joy and anticipation. Is it just first-day jitters, or something more significant? We're about to find out.

I raise my mini golf club and try to focus on the clown's chomping mouth. Other lips are on my mind, though--Bryan's, to be honest.
--Lauren Bjorkman, My Invented Life
Nothing wrong with romance! And there's humor, too, with the "clown's chomping mouth," especially juxtaposed with some (presumably) hot guy's mouth.

The third time I tried to kill myself I used a rope.
--Albert Borris, Crash Into Me
This is a classic lay-it-on-the-table opening. We know exactly what this book is going to be about: suicide.

Maybe it's just a scratch. Willow Randall stares at the girl seated opposite her.
--Julia Hoban, Willow
Here's a more subtle opening, starting with a small mystery. A girl is curious about a small detail, an injury. We are being eased into a story in which the details will prove significant.

Leah Greene is dead. Before my mother even answers the ringing telephone downstairs, I know.
--Jo Knowles, Lessons from a Dead Girl
Another high-impact opening, with the second line introducing a mystery: how does the narrator know?

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.
--Louis Sachar, Holes
Another opening with a slower build. But right away, we get the sense of absurdity, paradox, and puzzlement that characterizes the whole book.

"There are places you can go," Ariana tells him, "and a guy as smart as you has a decent chance of surviving to eighteen."
--Neal Shusterman, Unwind
I sometimes hear people say you can't start a book with dialogue, and I don't know where that advice came from, but I disagree. Of course you can, and Shusterman does. This opener tells us someone is looking to escape from something--and it's a matter of survival. So we have conflict, mystery, and high stakes right away.

Some of these openers plunk us right in the middle of conflict, while others hint at it more subtly. Most of them provoke questions. All of them introduce us to the narrator's voice, and to the book's tone. The beginning can be fast or slow, loud or quiet. Mostly, the first sentence just needs to make us read the next sentence. (Which needs to make us read the next ...)


  1. And on until we've finished the first chapter and want to keep reading...