Structure and the Novel: 4 Steps to a Bang-Up Opening Line

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  • Author Susan Mary Malon
  • Published January 10, 2011
  • Word count 713

So okay, we talked in overview about structure and the novel in a previous post, so now let’s dive in. And where to begin but at the beginning - of your novel.

This sounds easy enough, no? You have written your tome, whether from outline or discovery, and are now ready to dive into revisions. So, what should the opening of your novel accomplish?

If anything has to be perfect, this is it. This is the first thing an agent, editor, and reader will see, so you have to hook them in from the get-go. Lose them there, and you’re done. We used to call this the first fifty pages. Noah Lukeman has distilled it down to the First Five Pages, which is much more accurate. Because, agents used to say they’d look at those first fifty pages and of course, if they didn’t find something compelling on page one (and then page two, and some would give you until page five), they stopped. For our purposes right now, let’s focus on the first line.

Throughout your book, you have a reader to entertain, no matter through which venue you publish. Readers are a bit more forgiving than agents and editors (the jaded section among us). But readers are savvy folk. They gravitate to individual tastes, specific genres, and are used to getting their fixes right off the bat.

So, what exactly does that first sentence need to do?

First and foremost, you must grab your reader. That opening sentence is paramount. "It was a dark and stormy night" works if you’re Snoopy (and already have a huge readership!), but for the rest of us, our best work needs to be spit shined to open. Think of the great opening lines of novels you’ve loved. While "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" may seem pretty outdated today, still, you remember it. When all else fails . . . call me Ishmael.

What I often see—literally—are novels that open with "It was a Saturday night in the city." Or, "Thelma Sue was the youngest child of Peter and Marsha Smith, and she grew up in Pittsburgh in a yada yada yada." By then, you’re already zoned out. And what follows is a laundry list of familial characters and their histories and traits (but we’ll get to the body of the beginning chapter in another post. Right now, let’s stick with our opening sentence).

Okay, so you’ve written a four-hundred-page masterpiece. How on God’s green earth do you distill all of that down to a bang-up opening line?

Ask yourself these four questions:

1). What is your novel about in its essence? Tell me that in one sentence. (You won’t use this as your opening line, but the gist will come into play.) For example:

"You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy."

2). What is the overall tone? Is it poignant? Funny? Darkly serious? Romantic? We want the first line to reflect that tone:

"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing."

3). Who is the main character? What is his outlook on life? We want that reflected here as well:

"Gestures are all I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature."

4). And last but by no means least, who is your audience? How is that audience intended to relate to this main character or the broad scope of your opus? Take that into big consideration. I know, I know—we all write for ourselves. But we’re hoping to take others along for the ride as well!

Finally, you can spend as much time fashioning the perfect opening line for your novel as you do in polishing the rest of the book. Goes with the territory. So, unless you nailed it right off the bat, find your opening line once you’re finished with the entire novel. Much of the time it will spring into your consciousness unabated as you go through revisions, like a linebacker who by the fourth quarter has found his shot to the quarterback.

So now, go bang out the best opening line in the world, and convince me to read your novel!

Susan Mary Malone ( is a book editor who has helped over 30 authors get their books published with traditional publishers. Her professional background includes working as an editor, columnist & reporter. Malone’s edited books have been featured in Publishers Weekly & won numerous awards. Clients include NY Times Bestselling author Mary B. Morrison, & Essence Bestselling author Naleighna Kai, among many others. See her blog at

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