Opening Lines Come at the End

the end

As the other debs have mentioned this week, opening lines are special.  Those first words do a lot of things–they reflect the protagonist’s voice, evoke a sense of time and/or place, and may allude to the protagonist’s problem. They’re a promise of what’s to come. Ever a work on progress, my own novel, Becoming Josephine, had four different first lines and four different openings.

Draft 1:   “I could never guess how much my life would change on the other side of that voyage or, more importantly, how completely I would change.”

Though there’s a women’s fiction hook here and a bit of intrigue, the line has too many adverbs and it’s too rambly. Worse, it lacks the tone of my story. It also opened the novel with my heroine boarding the ship to France and focused on the terror-filled voyage rather than who Rose was and what made her tick. Needless to say, I went back to the drawing board.

Drafts 2-5:  “The voodoo priestess threw entrails in the fire.”

This opening I liked quite a bit and had a hard time letting go of it. It hints at place with the voodoo bit, has an ominous tone, and packs a lot of punch. I like that. To punch. But once I signed with my agent and she read the opening, she liked the passage, but thought we needed to open at a slightly different place. If I hadn’t heard the same thing from a trusty critique partner, I may have disagreed. Alas, I went back to the drawing board.

Drafts 6-7: “We wandered along a darkened trail, farther from the house than Papa ever allowed.”

In this opening, again we have the tone of the novel, which I liked, but the best part about it to me is it indicated something very important about the protagonist: she broke rules when she wanted to, even if it meant there would be danger in store for her. Bingo. The novel opened at the “right” spot with this line as well…or so I thought. My agent loved the scene, blah blah, but at the 11th hour, a week before we went on submission, she contacted me and said, “we need a prologue.”

I had SO MUCH ANGST over that final note from my agent. First of all, agents and editors complain bitterly about prologues so that worried me. Second of all, it had taken me three years to nail down the perfect opening and I thought I had done that. How was I supposed to write the perfect prologue in one week? But I trusted my agent. She has a brilliant editorial eye, so I kicked around a few ideas and talked with my crit partners. Two days before I needed to submit it, I devised an opening I’m very happy with.

This final opening line is:

Final Draft: “The missive arrived in the night.”

It indicates a past era, which I liked. It has intrigue. It’s short and punchy. It’s an immediate hook that not only sets the overall tone for the novel, but it also alludes to the novel’s pace.

The moral of the story? Great openings  come at the end of the revision process. Oh, and trust your agent.


What’s your opening line and what does it tell us about your novel?

Author: Heather Webb

Heather Webb is the author of BECOMING JOSEPHINE, her debut historical (Plume/Penguin 2014). A freelance editor and blogger, she spends oodles of time helping writers hone their skills—something she adores. You may find her Twittering @msheatherwebb, hosting contests, or hanging around as a contributor to the Editor's Posts. She is also the Twitter mistress for the popular Writer Unboxed. She loves making new reader and writer friends. Stop on by her website, Between the Sheets!

20 Replies to “Opening Lines Come at the End”

  1. Opening lines are the bane of my existence. I’m such a perfectionist, I cannot dive into my MS unless that opening line nails what I want to say. Then, after all of the blood, sweat, tears, and toil over the opening line, I have to come up with a second one! *flails*

    1. LOL! Evangeline, I know what you mean. I do struggle with that opening line, though I think I’m lucky in that opening scenes come to mind quickly for me. What’s your favorite opening line of all of your books?

      1. The opening scene is somewhat easier than the opening line, but I agonize over making sure it’s hook-y and sets the right tone.

        As for my favorite opening line, I think it would have to be: “There is nothing more vulgar than a woman in love with her husband.”

  2. For a long time. my opening line of my completed upmarket fiction was: He hated her.
    Right now it’s: Dear Mr. Hurly, I’m sorry I jumped bail and I intend on paying you back every bit of the money.
    I like the impact of the first one, but the second one leads to understanding the MC sooner. (The “He hated her” line/scene now follows a 1/3-page long note prologue.

    On my new upmarket fiction piece, the first sentence is: Black.
    I like this one, and I hope it stays.

    1. I love your revised line! You’re right–it captures a lot more than the other. And “Black.” is interesting. It could mean so many things. I’d be very curious to see what the next line is because I think that’s where we would really get a sense of what’s happening. Thanks for your comment! I love to see what others have for first lines.

  3. I struggled with the opening line and scene for years, truly, years. The result:
    “The little paper gown doesn’t cover or protect a thing, but I pull it closer and hug my arms up to my flat, mutilated chest.”
    Comfort of Fences

  4. Loved seeing the different versions through different drafts. And I think it’s especially interesting that the prologue only came later & only after your agent suggested it. I’ve also heard the complaints about prologues so I was excited to see your book broke this rule, and marvelously! When I finished reading Becoming Josephine, I went back and reread the prologue again. 🙂

    1. Yay! I’m glad to hear you say that, Natalia. I reread prologues and first pages, often, after finishing a novel. That was my plan because my prologue picks up a few years after she and Napoleon are divorced.

  5. I love this Heather. I struggled with my first line — and also the prologue question. Glad to know that prologues aren’t ALWAYS anathema.

    Now I’m curious about my first lines through the drafts. Actually, I shudder to think about the earliest ones. Hah!

  6. I really like the last one. I see a lot of first sentences (and first scenes) that try to tell too much. Fiction is not newspaper writing — you shouldn’t tell who, what, where, etc. all at the beginning.

    It’s good to see the progression, too, because I really don’t care for #1. It’s very generic — there are probably thousands of books that could start with that sentence. Plus, the “summer that changed everything” is a cliche. I think you ended up in much better place (plus, of course, “missive” 🙂 ).

    My last story (Stevie One) began this way: Stephanie stood by the side of the highway. This was not going well. She’d been running away from home for over seven hours now, and she’d only made it from her family’s house to the highway.

    I’m establishing some of the YA-ish elements that I’m going to use, in what is definitely not a “YA” story. (The actual genre would constitute a big spoiler.) I’m hinting that Our Hero is not easily discouraged (and obviously for the moment I’m withholding her age). I’m establishing third person limited (my first-ever use of that voice), but then part two follows a different character and Stephanie barely appears.

    1. Somehow this wonderful reply just popped in my inbox. Sorry I missed it, Anthony! I totally agree that sometimes writers, especially new writers, jam who, what, when, and where into the first few paragraphs of an opening (or even a first sentence *cringe*) and it’s overkill and awkward.

      I’m intrigued by writers that manage to write in third person limited and still make the reader feel close enough to the characters to want to keep going. I’d love to hear how that goes for you in your YA-ish novel! So the POV is more of a narrator of sorts?

      1. In the earlier parts of the story, it’s pretty strictly from the character’s POV (different characters in different parts). The final parts pull out the lens a bit. One reason is that my protagonist is pretty young and doesn’t understand everything she’s seeing, so showing the events from outside her perception clarifies some things for the reader.

        The story is here, by the way, if you’d like to read it: As you can see from the TOC, the early parts are named after characters, saying basically: “This is whose head you’re going to be in.” I don’t do a lot of authorial commenting.

  7. I don’t get what all the fuss is about prologues (as harped on by agents and publishers). Yes, I “get” the whole notion of “start with the action of the story,” but in many cases, prologues work so well and set such a tone, or pose such wonderful questions that make you WANT to read more — and I THINK, if you polled READERS, they’d be just as unconcerned. So – all that to say: I’m glad you have a prologue, and I can’t wait to read it — plus what follows! 😉

    1. I totally agree, Melissa. Prologues are great if used properly. I think that often inexperienced writers use them because they don’t set up a proper hook in the opening chapter so they jam a prologue in to make the books sound more intriguing than it really is. I’m guessing this is why agents and eds often don’t like them. And thank you for your kind comments! I hope you enjoy the book. 🙂 🙂

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