If readers don’t stick with you past your opening lines then the rest is irrelevant. Everwalker wrote a great piece about this, and I recommend that you check it out. Based on an idea from Scott Bell, her approach is to start with the character and a sense of forward motion.
To take an example from Neil Gaiman’s extraordinary American Gods:
‘Shadow had done three years in prison.’
In those seven words we have the character, we know something about him, and we get the sense that things are changing – he ‘had done’ three years in prison, and now presumably he’s coming out. Things are changing.
Gaiman’s opening also raises lots of questions. Why was Shadow in prison? What will he do once he gets out? What sort of person has a name like Shadow? It gets you on the hook and reels you in towards the rest of the story.
‘But wait,’ I hear you cry, well-read reader that you are. ‘What about Neuromancer by William Gibson, possibly the most famous opening line in science fiction? That doesn’t have character or forward motion. You’re a fool Knighton, a fool and a fraud!’
And it sure looks like you have a point:
‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.’
But even Gibson, having delivered that killer line, then cuts to character and motion:
‘ ‘It’s not like I’m using,’ Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat.’
Voila, character and motion, Case in conflict with the crowd as he tries to get somewhere. And the following lines tie character and setting together, showing what sort of place Case spends his time in and how he perceives it. That opening line might not directly introduce Case, but it does tell us something about his world and the way he sees it, and this is a story that’s a lot about exposing that world to us through Case.
More like guidelines
‘Rules are there so that you think before you break them.’ – Terry Pratchett
Any guideline needs to be treated with some flexibility. Gibson achieves the same thing as Gaiman, he just waits for the second sentence. But he also varies it – his story is about taking us into a completely different world, and it needs to sell that difference from the start. Gibson’s selling us alienation, Gaiman the brutal truth of a man looking to move on from his past.
What are your favourite opening lines, both that you’ve read and that you’ve written? What do they give the reader to keep them reading? Share them below, lets see how well this rule holds.