The Best First Line Ever

I need your help choosing the style and direction the beginning of my novel will take.

I’m currently on retreat to revise my novel draft. To help guide me, I’ve been reading Les Edgerton’s book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go. This book has illuminated many way I may make my novel opening much stronger. Here’s where I need you help.

Below are two opening snippets. Please read them both and then let me know in the comments at the bottom of the page which one you find most compelling. I don’t care for corrections at this point. The main function of the opening is to make the reader want to read more. Between these, which prompts you to want to keep going?

Opening #1

 

How many men do you need to sleep with to kill love? Basic tootsie-pop question with a twist. I could tell you about each one, but that would make this merely a story about sex. I don’t want the book of my life to sit on that shelf. Not enough traffic. Readings would be awkward.

I could easily make this a book about what the other writers call “the long dark wilderness of the soul.” Frankly, I never cared much for tragedies. Even the queens of my generation grow tired of brooding and dramatizing now and then.

This is simply a love story. A true story. My story.

For 25 years, the story of my life played out like a sitcom. I was the girl who fell in love at 16, married her sweetheart, earned a college degree and had a beautiful daughter—though not necessarily in that order. I built a successful life in a foreign country where I worked as an English teacher. Happy endings forever and ever.

Unfortunately, that plot was unsustainable. Every arc has an upward stroke, but also a twin descent.

Let me show you where it begins.

Opening #2

 

Let me show you where it begins.

Japan. Christmas Eve. Cold rain, but no snow. The apartment provided to me by the university where I teach has a wall of glass, sliding doors that lead out to a balcony and show me all of Osaka’s twinkling orange lights. Strings of tiny white bulbs wrap my scrawny fica tree. Brightly colored packages circle round the pot. My two-year-old daughter has finally succumbed to the inevitability of sleep and snoozes safe and warm in her pink Hello Kitty room. My husband has stepped out. Just for a minute. He’s probably halfway down the hill by now, hurrying to buy milk and Christmas cake topped with giant red strawberries before the grocery closes.

I’m sitting at my desk by the balcony, my face bathed in the deathly grey glow of my husband’s computer screen, scrolling through an accidentally discovered folder named 98taxclassifications filled with pictures of my best friend. Laughing. Smiling. Half-naked. Naked. In some her naturally blond hair is long and full of curls as it was years ago, in others her hair is chopped short and dyed red as it has been just last year after her divorce. In some photos, I see my husband’s feet, or a bare shoulder, or his shadow painting a swath of her skin a darker shade of pale. In a rare few, I see his face, pressed close next to hers, beaming up into a camera held at arm’s length.

I click, click, click through sub-folders with names like Christmas 99, Rainier Cabin or simply favs. The last set of photos seem to be dated the very month we left America for Japan.

My mouth gaps open and closed like a carp.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Thank you for your help!

 

Use your words. Comment here.



Nancy Schatz Alton

5 years ago

#1 for sure.

Kelsye

5 years ago

Thanks Nancy!

Lonn Videam

5 years ago

#2 It “hooks” without trying to be insufferably clever about it.

Kelsye

5 years ago

But I AM insufferably clever. 😉

Thanks for your response!

Lisa Costantino

5 years ago

My vote goes to #2. It quickly drew me into the narrator’s world with a compelling combination of imagery and plot hook. I like the opening line of #1, but as a whole it’s a bit too meta and introductory for my tastes. Both, of course, are well-written. 

Kelsye

5 years ago

Thanks for taking the time to read and reply. I appreciate it!

lilycarmichael

5 years ago

I’m with Nancy – it’s gotta be #1!

Kelsye

5 years ago

Thanks Lily!

Jet Harrington

5 years ago

Hands down, #2. While it’s a little heavy on the description, it has immediacy and emotional resonance. It sets up the stakes directly, and as a reader, I am far more invested in how that story turns out than I am the first, which is coming from a greater reflective distance.

Kelsye

5 years ago

I agree with you. Thanks for taking the time to reply!

ylamers

5 years ago

#2 with a modification. Get to paragraph 2 a bit quicker or start with paragraph 2. It grabs and it hurts, powerfully.

Kelsye

5 years ago

I think this is exactly what I’m going to do.

sameer1138

5 years ago

Definitely #1. #2 is a bit standard and not super compelling. #1 draws you right in and makes you want to know more.

Kelsye

5 years ago

Thanks for your perspective!

Andy V

5 years ago

If I vote, will you tell me exactly how it turns out for #2?

Cause it’s killing me–like, there’s no way he’s going to get groceries, is he?

Kelsye

5 years ago

Ha! Of course. That’s what the rest of the novel is for. 😀

Ethan Yarbrough

5 years ago

I think you’re clearing your throat in #1, trying too overtly to establish tone, working up the confidence to start telling the story. Whereas in #2 you just cut right to the story, grab us by the lapels of our hearts, shake us and make us care from the get-go. I vote #2. Emphatically.

Kelsye

5 years ago

You and I are thinking the same thing. Thanks for your perspective!

Thomas

5 years ago

#1! The first sentence includes the reader, the problem, a bond and a tiny part of the story (conflict). Let me show you where it begins includes in my opinion more or less – nothing.

Btw: a wonderful poll!

Kelsye

5 years ago

Yes. This was the first time I’ve tried something like this. It’s a little terrifying to offer up unfinished work for judgement, but also so very helpful. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

Mr. Winters

5 years ago

Short answer: #2.

Long Answer: The first sentence in number one grabbed me, but the rest of it quickly lost me. By the time I got to the end I had no interest in where it began. The second one was better, but if I had been shopping for a book I never would have made it past the scene setting. So boring. Grab me with the juicy stuff first, then I might care to know the rest.

Kelsye

5 years ago

Good insight. Thanks!

tomseymore

5 years ago

I enjoyed both, but #2 juxtaposes a lovely visceral setting and the dawning private horror of clicking through those photos… outward reality vs. internal in a way many, many readers can relate to.

Opening #2 by far.

Kelsye

5 years ago

I’m with you Tom.

Jane Hodges

5 years ago

I agree with Ethan — #2 is better, #1 is too abstract. I think in prose you need to show some action to earn the “meditative” or “narrative analysis” segments and so it’s hard to start the story w/them, and even master pontificators or those who drop the bombshell first and then unpack the story (Richard Ford) begin in action. #2 shows a concrete space and time, and there’s tension in that she’s at home with the baby, in a foreign country where presumably spouses really have to be one another’s social life in a more intense way than stateside, and she’s making this bad discovery but can’t act out or run off. I’m curious about the confrontation/circumstance that will happen when the husband returns etc. The #1 section is too knowing too soon…

Kelsye

5 years ago

Good insight! Thanks for reading and taking the time to write such a thoughtful reply. 😀

Kelsye

5 years ago

Thank you all for your insight! This is very helpful. I think I have a new beginning to write, taking a small bit from #1, but going right into the scene from #2. I look forward to sharing it with you all!

Waverly

5 years ago

Totally #2. I liked #1, I would have kept on reading but it’s too slow compared to the gut-wrenching, drenched with detail, tense and suspenseful #2.

EllenSeltz

5 years ago

#2 all the way. It is immediate and draws me in to the character’s experience so I can feel the emotional reaction in her shoes. #1 is very abstract and distancing. Also, if a real-life person told me these 2 paragraphs – with #1 I would nod and back away and avoid her in future so I wouldn’t have to listen to this. With #2 I would give her a hug.

Abby

5 years ago

Looks like #2 is winning by a landslide, but for me, it’s #2 for sure.

Cynthia Stacey

5 years ago

#2 Hands down. While #1 was interesting it didn’t grab me like the second one did. Good luck with the book.

nomadicchick

5 years ago

I also prefer #2. It has many strong hooks that drew me in. Strong, gorgeous imagery too. But that’s how I kind of write, so that could explain my attraction!

ontyrepassages

5 years ago

I prefer #2, but like someone mentioned earlier, it should reach that second paragraph more quickly because it didn’t just spark my interest, it had me riveted.

helldoesntownme

5 years ago

# 2. But begin w/ paragraph 2. It pulls me in immediately. I like the graphic beginning but find the transition into fleshing out the scene a bit odd. Will the story be punctuated with graphic imagery? Both are riveting, I’m just not understanding the flow.

Drusilla (http://lovedasif.com/)

rfordirol9

5 years ago

#2, because It Grabs Me. Want to read the rest of That story. Kudos!

newsy1

5 years ago

#2 hits it. Could be tightened up a bit but it makes me want to know more.

Monae Dasher

5 years ago

#2 I want to know more.

Suzette Belmont (@SuzetteBelmont)

3 years ago

#2 gets my vote. It caught my attention, pulled me in to know the woman and I felt what she was feeling when she discovered the folder of not so innocent pics. The juxtaposition of the opening paragraph of a caring husband rushing to beat time before the store closed and the opposite side of him as uncaring enough to have a longstanding affair, with her best friend, no less, is striking.
Like the use of onomatopoeia after the shock discovery. Well timed.
I now can’t wait to find out how she handles the husband’s return from the store.