Episode 89

3 Questions to Ask About Your Opening Line

This week we begin a two-part series on writing memorable opening lines. Today we’re discussing fiction, and in the next episode we’ll be covering nonfiction.

Music licensed from Storyblocks:

“More Jam Please” by Raighes Factory

“Colombian of Latin Music” by Gushito

“The Way You Move” by Sleeping Ghost

Rosemi Mederos:

If you have plot bunnies coming out of your plot holes, it’s time for a writing break.

ppy new year, writers. I hope:

We have to do the news first, of course. The bookstore we’re visiting today has a cafe, so let’s head there first.

Today we are in Abaco Libros y Cafe in Cartagena, Colombia. This bookstore and coffee shop is housed in a bright yellow building, and the interior features some of the same yellow on the walls along with a vibrant blue and exposed red brick. Dark wood bistro tables run down the center of the store, which sometimes makes for tight book browsing but can also be a good way to strike up conversation with strangers.

This month, from January 25th to the 28th, the Hay Festival will take place in Cartagena. This festival is “a celebration of literature, visual arts, cinema, music, geopolitics, journalism and the environment.” It is an important literary event, and several of the sessions will be available for online streaming. If you’re interested in attending, check the show notes for a link to their events calendar and ticket information.

Now, how about we place an order at the cafe, and I’ll fill you in on some publishing news.

After licensing negotiations fell apart, the New York Times is now suing Microsoft and OpenAI and accusing them of copyright infringement, unfair competition, and trademark dilution. The complaint states that output is being generated “that recites Times content verbatim, closely summarizes it, and mimics its expressive style.”

Regarding the Iowa case I told you about two episodes ago, a federal judge has blocked key provisions of the new law that restricts books and classroom discussions about sex and gender. The law is still being appealed, but here are some highlights from Judge Stephen Locher’s 49-page opinion and order:

The judge felt that the law is“unlikely to satisfy the First Amendment under any standard of scrutiny.”

The judge went on to say that “The State Defendants have presented no evidence that student access to books depicting sex acts was creating any significant problems in the school setting, much less to the degree that would give rise to a ‘substantial and reasonable governmental interest’ justifying across-the-board removal. . . . Instead, at most, the State Defendants presented evidence that some parents found the content of a small handful of books to be objectionable.”

Regarding the position of teachers in all of this, the judge said that the statute is“so wildly overbroad that every school district and elementary school teacher in the State has likely been violating it since the day the school year started. . . . This renders the statute void for vagueness under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because the State will have unfettered discretion to decide when to enforce it and against whom, thus making it all but impossible for a reasonable person to know what will and will not lead to punishment.”

As far as the books themselves, the judge said that the vague law has thus far resulted in the removal of “hundreds of books from school libraries, including, among others, nonfiction history books, classic works of fiction, Pulitzer Prize–winning contemporary novels, books that regularly appear on Advanced Placement exams, and even books designed to help students avoid being victimized by sexual assault.”

Duke University has compiled a list of books, movies, and songs entering the public domain this year. Among them are Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, Orlando by Virginia Woolf, The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne, and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie.

Check the show notes for a link to the full list as well as links to all of today’s news stories. Now let’s hop on the Overthinking Couch for today’s writing tip.

In episode 29 we discussed writing your hook, which is the part of the book’s opening that grabs your readers’ attention and makes them keep reading. Check that episode for details on how to write a killer hook. Today we’re zooming in on just your opening sentence and looking at some memorable opening sentences in literature. I am not saying these are the best opening lines, rather I am saying they are memorable. I will even go as far as to say that they are good opening lines. We know, of course, famous lines like “Call me Ishmael” from Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Is his name Ishmael, or is that just what we’re meant to call him? We are intrigued by this syntax. Or, at least, we were the first hundred times we heard the line.

Then there’s “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times” from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. How could it possibly be both? The sentence doesn’t end there, and maybe it goes on a little too long, but the beginning of that sentence is memorable. Those two examples open with a mystery and confuse the reader in such a way that they want to keep reading.

Your opening line should set the tone for the rest of the story. Many first-time authors take a long time describing the opening scenery, which signals to the reader that they can expect more of that throughout the entire book. However, most of the time, the author does not spend the entire book describing every scene in the same slow and overly detailed way as they did during the opening chapter.

A good opening line might throw the reader into the action and even create a sense of danger, allowing the reader to fall into the story without flowery writing or unnecessary details. For example, there’s the opening line in The Gunslinger by Stephen King: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." This uses minimal but sharp details and sets us off on a thrilling chase, no time to waste.

A good opening line might be evocative, such as the opening line in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: “Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board.” This creates a sense of wonder and introspection. What do you wish for when you see a ship on the horizon?

Another opening line that evokes curiosity and self-reflection is the opening of Anna Karenina by Tolstoy: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The reader instantly thinks about their own family while also wondering what is the unique unhappiness plaguing the family we’re about to get to know.

Here are some more memorable first lines. Let’s not psychoanalyze why I chose these over so many other good ones:

From One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez: "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."

From Paradise by Toni Morrison: “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.”

From Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: "History has failed us, but no matter.”

While I hope you found this episode interesting and entertaining, keep in mind that there are plenty of excellent books whose opening lines are not committed to memory by the masses.

However, if you are inspired to take a moment to review your book’s opening, ask yourself these three questions:

Does my book’s opening hook the reader within the first few sentences, sparking curiosity and excitement for what’s to come?

Does the opening establish the tone and atmosphere of the entire book?

Does the opening introduce essential elements like setting, characters, and potential conflict? It doesn’t need to introduce the settings, characters and conflicts for the entire book, but it should do so for the opening scene.

What fantastic opening line did I miss? Please email me and let me know.

from a nonfiction classic. In:

Thank you so much for listening, and remember, you deserved this break.

If you would like us to visit your favorite independent bookstore, feature your favorite independent author (even if it’s you), or discuss something you’re overthinking about, please email me at podcast@writingbreak.com.

Thank you for making space in your mind for The Muse today.

Writing Break is hosted by America’s Editor and produced by Allon Media with technical direction by Gus Aviles. Visit us at writingbreak.com or contact us at podcast@writingbreak.com.

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Rosemi Mederos


Rosemi is the founder of America's Editor, a book editing company.