Friday, 5 February 2010

In Search of the Stellar Opening Line

The importance of a great opening has really hit home recently, having spent a considerable amount of time on Harper Collins's virtual slush-pile authonomy – when faced with thousands of opening chapters to read, unless you're given some other reason to read on, you will pass on anything that doesn't grab you immediately, that doesn't simultaneously intrigue you and convince you of the writer's ability to tell a story, and an interesting one at that – this has given me some sense of what it must be like for agents and editors when facing their immense, unsolicited slush piles.

I'm also currently reading Hooked by Les Edgerton (which I will review when finished) which stresses this point very powerfully.

When a writing friend suggested that I'd rewritten The Chicken Factory so often that I'd effectively written the equivalent of six different novels, it prompted me to take a look at all the different opening lines I'd used in all the various drafts.

What an interesting exercise! The first thing that struck me (after how atrocious most of them were) was how different they all were, so I must have had some understanding of how important the opening line was, and obviously feeling that I hadn't got it right with each draft. While the first line of the last draft always feels like the last first line, this exercise shows that this is unlikely to be the case, although I do feel like the current one is the best.

I've included all of them here, and while I grant they're are some shockers here (if not all of them, you might say!), I would be really interested to know which one people think is the best – let me know in a comment – it would be great to know if I've got any better, and if my current favourite matches yours. Here they are in no particular order:

1. It’s called a mid-life crisis.

2. My boss is called Bert.

3. The bus in front of me was blocking both of the lanes on the approach to the roundabout.

4. I already disliked the man.

6. My father once told me that life is like a bad back.

7. I hit the brakes hard as the van pulled out in front of me.

8. I always believed that happiness was just there for the taking.

9. Once I allowed myself to consider that I wasn't special, that this world wasn't special, that it was all, quite possibly, a terrible mistake - feeling ignorant or stupid seemed a trivial thing.

10. What is the cause of this insatiable longing for fulfilment?

11. It wouldn't be hard to kick-off a shit-storm in a petrol station – just hose some fuel on the forecourt, dump your cigarette, and walk away.


  1. I like 4 and 6. 4 because you are straight into a conflict, and 6 because it's an interesting simile.

    9 is my least favourite as it's a bit rambling.

  2. Hmm...there are some great lines here. But (isn't it always but with me :-))several of the best overall aren't really ideal first lines, at least to my mind.

    I'm actually torn between numbers 4 and 11 with 8 pushing hard too.

  3. 11 is the winner for me! But I also like 4. They all seem really different. Once you finished the draft, did the ending tell you what the beginning should be? It worked that way for me. What's your opening right now?

  4. Right now (or actually, right then) it's number 11, although I think it's going to be different again. Will post new opening when I have any confidence that I'm happy with it!