When someone picks up your book, you have very little time to convince them to keep reading. They might read the first page or maybe the first chapter if you’re lucky, but wouldn’t it be better to hook them from the first paragraph, or the first line?
We’ve looked at the importance of reader expectations and the first-chapter essentials, so now let’s get more granular and look at your opening lines. How can you make these as strong as possible to immerse readers in your story from the start? Your opening sentences do a lot of heavy lifting, so it’s important to craft them carefully.
To evaluate the strength of story openings, I use the acronym SUCK (Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Kickoff), which I learned from Allison K. Williams in a developmental editing webinar.
Let’s go through each aspect of SUCK and look at a few examples of strong opening sentences.
The opening of your story needs to be simple and clear enough for readers to follow it. If the first sentence is long and convoluted—if readers need to work to find the meaning—they likely won’t want to keep reading. You want to make the reading experience easy for readers on a technical level, otherwise your book will feel like a chore to read.
A surefire way to draw in readers is to open with something they don’t expect. That doesn’t mean starting off every story with a shocking event; you can create subtle moments of surprise that will work just as well.
What you want to avoid is opening your story in a way that’s overly familiar or cliché, such as having your character wake up or go for a run. If readers look at the opening sentence and think, “I’ve seen this before,” they won’t be as inclined to keep reading.
To effectively immerse your readers in the story, use specific and concrete details. Opening on an abstract or vague statement will leave readers floating; they’ll wonder why they should care about the story if the first sentence doesn’t give them something to latch onto. Specific details will help ground them and pull them in.
You want the opening lines of your story to kick off the rest of the book in a way that accurately sets up reader expectations (see previous blog post about the importance of reader expectations). This means establishing the genre and the tone, and possibly introducing your protagonist or some type of conflict.
An effective way to kick off any story is to use a sentence that introduces a question. If you can make your readers wonder about something from the start, they will keep reading to find the answer.
Let’s look at a few examples of powerful opening lines. Some of these books have prologues, but I’m jumping to the first line of the first chapter because many readers skip prologues (to my chagrin). If you have a prologue, though, the first line needs to accomplish the same things as the first line of the first chapter in case readers read it.
“For eighteen years, my unibrow has saved me from being sold into a painful, terrifying death.” — Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Simple: This line is simple and easy to understand. The narrator’s unibrow has somehow kept them alive.
Unexpected: I don’t know about you, but the unexpectedness of this sentence hits me stronger than any of the other SUCK categories. How on earth does a unibrow save someone from death? This is an A+ example of a sentence that introduces a question, and readers will continue reading to find the answer.
Concrete: The details in this sentence ground readers in a concrete scenario. We know the narrator is at least eighteen years old, that they have a unibrow, that their unibrow has saved them from being sold, and that being sold would lead to their death. These details spark a lot of questions, but they aren’t abstract.
Kick-off: Once again, this sentence effectively kicks off the story in multiple ways. Since it starts with “for eighteen years,” we can assume that the novel will be in the young adult or new adult category. The sentence mentions “being sold into a painful, terrifying death,” which leads us to believe that there is injustice in the story world and that this book will probably feature violence and death.
There’s also a morbid sense of humor here in the unexpectedness of a unibrow saving someone from death, which sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
Would you pick up Iron Widow based on the first line? I would.
“A girl is running for her life.” — The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
Simple: This sentence is short and easy to understand.
Unexpected: This sentence drops readers in the middle of an action scene. It creates two key questions that will push readers to keep reading: Who is the girl? Why is she running for her life?
Concrete: There are three specific, concrete details in this sentence: there’s a girl, the girl is running, and she’s running for her life. The details could be more specific—for example, the sentence could use the protagonist’s name instead of “the girl.” But leaving her name out at the start is a deliberate decision based on the premise of the story, which readers quickly discover as they continue reading. Plus, her name is in the book title.
Kick-off: The sentence effectively launches the story because Addie spends most of it running in one way or another, and the stakes are her life—whether that’s survival or the quality of her life.
Would you read The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue based on the first line? It’s intriguing enough to grab me!
“Minnie stared in disbelief at the resignation letter in her hand.” — A Tale of Two Florists by Brenna Bailey
Yes, I’m using my book as an example, and that’s because I used SUCK to craft the first sentence!
Simple: This sentence is short and easy to understand. Readers can easily picture the action of someone staring at a letter.
Unexpected: The unexpectedness of this sentence comes with its specificity. Minnie isn’t staring at just any letter—she’s staring at a resignation letter, and she’s staring at it in disbelief. This isn’t a common action and it creates a few questions, making it unexpected.
Concrete: There are multiple concrete details in this sentence that set the scene: someone named Minnie is staring at a resignation letter, and she’s staring at it in disbelief. This implies that the letter comes from someone else (it isn’t hers), and that she wasn’t expecting it. So, whose letter is it? Who is Minnie? And why is Minnie surprised by the letter?
Kick-off: This sentence effectively kicks off the story because it establishes Minnie as the main protagonist. It also sets up the tone because Minnie will be in disbelief and will experience disappointment multiple time throughout the story. A Tale of Two Florists is largely about her learning where those feelings come from and moving on from them.
Would you read A Tale of Two Florists based on the first line?
I hope this look at SUCK (Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Kickoff) helps you craft a strong opening for your story. Remember to create questions in your readers’ minds and push them to keep reading.
If you’d like help with your story opening, contact me about a first-chapter assessment!
Happy writing, bookmartens!