Memorable Opening Lines

How important are opening lines to a book’s success? Editors tell writers that opening lines are essential to grab their (and a reader’s) attention, but honestly, how many opening lines can YOU remember? Even of famous books?

As an erotic romance author, I’ve tried to follow this sacred Rule Number One, and hook a reader from the very beginning of a story. Here’s a sampling…

“Isabella Tallin was handcuffed and blindfolded. What the hell was going on?”  (from my case-of-mistaken-identity contemporary erotic romance The Initiation of Isabella)

“Today was Saturday. That meant sex with Doc tonight.” (from my contemporary erotica amnesia story Snow White And Her Seven Lovers)

“Agent Turner, I’m sending you undercover as a Beautiful Dolls sex robot.”  (from my futuristic police erotic romance Programmed For Pleasure.)

What do you think? Would those opening lines tempt you to want to read more about the story? Are they enough of a hook for you as a reader?

Let’s compare those opening lines to some classic romances.

From Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell… “Scarlet O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald… “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

From Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte… “I’ve just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbor I shall be troubled with.”

Well? Would these classic opening lines be enough of a hook to make you buy the book? Or is it the story as a whole that makes it a classic? As an author or a reader, what do you think of the importance of opening lines?

Jenna Ives


Unknown said...


D.J. Davis here, newly a part of Red Sage.

I think back when the classics were written, there was a little more leeway in getting a story started. I agree, there are a number of classic stories I don't see as having an overly memorable or hook worthy first line, except in the fact that so many people quote was the best of times, it was the worst of times (which honestly would not have hooked me)...that you can't help now but remember them. I'd even go so far as to say even the first paragraph is lacking in some cases. But nowadays, there is an inherent lack of time, really, for many people and having the ability to hook a potential buyer out of the gate is even more important in today's market.

This is not to say our attention spans have shortened, just that our patience with a slower start has dwindled somewhat. Writers have a shorter span to engage a reader before they put the book back on the shelf, and so it becomes important to grab them as soon as they open to the first page. I've heard people say they will only give a book a couple sentences to grab their attention and I've heard others say a paragraph. Personally, I give at least a paragraph, and usually more if the first paragraph is at least interesting, if I'm standing in a store, but I do admit to really enjoying getting hit with a powerful first line. Unfortunately, if the rest of the writing isn't there, I'm not all that happy, which is why I tend to excuse a so-so first line.

I'd almost go so far as to say that it's more important for editors, who have a huge slush pile and little time to spend beyond the first paragraph to become engaged in the story, though starting strong is certainly useful in picking up buyers. However, once they're hooked, the rest of the story is equally important. Start strong, finish stronger.

In the end, I'd think that it's not so much important for the first sentence to be stellar, but that it be good enough to lead to a better second, and third, and fourth, and so on. A mini-rollercoaster ride, if you will, the uphill climb tantalizing the reader for the fun that's about to come.

Amber Green said...

I think you're comparing Gala apples to medlars. Your first lines, like most recent genre-novel openers, are designed to hook the reader as well as give some foretaste of what is to come. The classic novels you quote have a first line crafted to give a good taste of the story, tone, and writer's voice. As I recall, the Gatsby guy (Nick, I think?) went through the story observing, comparing, judging, and thinking about what he was seeing. The first line pretty well indicates that this will be the case. I never could make my way all through Gatsby, while I can't imagine leaving one of your stories unfinished.

Sam Beck said...

Ah, doncha love those calmer, simpler times? Or not. Styles, fashion, and yeah, writing too.

The style now is much faster, (in music, fashion, and yeah, writing too). And frankly, I like fast! But one of the attractions of reading a "classic" is the opportunity to visit the time period it captures, (especially if, when written, it was a "contemporary" novel). Still, I gotta admit, "Call me Ishmael," never did it for me. :)

Carly Carson said...

In general, my favorite books are older ones, and I was willing to give them more than an opening line. But I must say that your opening lines are more intriguing than the classics you cited. Some I grabbed off the shelf:
"Who is John Galt?" (classic, Atlas Shrugged)
All children, except one, grow up. (great, Peter Pan)
My father has asked me to be the fourth corner at the Joy Luck club. (intriguing, The Joy Luck Club)
When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain? (Okay, I cheated-2 lines, but it's so good. Macbeth)
All of these books are on the same shelf on one bookcase in my house. Weird. But I'm having fun.

Jenna Ives said...

Wow, we've had some great comments here. Thank you all for sharing your opinions!

And THANKS Amber, for your kind comment about my stories! :)


Kathy Bennett said...

Ha! As I read your article I couldn't wait to spout my knowledge of the first line of Gone With the Wind...and then you used it! :-)

However, as a young girl that first line about Scarlett caught my attention and I've remembered it ever since. Is it a great opening line by today's standards? Probably not, but it did tell the reader in one sentence much about the protagonist, Scarlett.

With that said, I love the opening lines in your books. Those are definite hooks making me want to read more. And I've read all of those wonderful stories.

I always think I write killer first lines until my books go to my critique partners. Then one of my critique partners suggests a new first line that puts mine to shame. Writing attention-grabbing first lines is a I'm still nurturing.

Alyssa Kress said...

I love your opening lines, Jenna. They really give me an idea how fun the book is going to be. And I've never been disappointed! I can't say the opening lines of the classics you've quoted leave me uninterested, however. They also intrigue me. What advice did Gatsby's father give him when he was vulnerable and couldn't decide whether it was good or not? I suppose it ruined his life somehow. My eyes seem to go past the first line, no matter how mundane it is, though. I usually give a book at least a page to get my attention. Guess I'm easy!

Jenna Ives said...

Kathy & Alyssa - Thanks for your compliments about my opening lines! I try to hook the reader right from the start :)


Christine Ashworth said...

Jenna, I'm a total fan of your opening lines, too! As a writer, I find them difficult to do and often rewrite them until I'm blind.

As a reader, I like the kinds of opening lines that lead into more...leisurely, unhurried opening lines, like that of Gone With the Wind. One of my favorite books, The Shell Seekers, opens like this: "The taxi, an old Rover smelling of old cigarette smoke, trundled along the empty country road at an unhurried pace." You know right there you'll get an unhurried story, and can relax into it.

Then there's Susan Squires opening line of "Do You Believe in Magic?"... "Jason saw his reflection wavering in the pool of blood under the streetlight." Okay, yeah - that got my attention!

I guess I like eclectic openings and eclectic novels! Great topic, hon.