Test Your Story’s Opening Line– Fiction Writing

I’m taking a masters class through Writers Village and I thought I’d share with you the “secret formula” to your opening lines.

It’s called the Hologram test.  What is the Hologram test?  It’s a golden rule that the first 100 words of your novel be a hologram, a teasing but true sample of the wares to come.

So how can you make sure your story passes this all-important test and wins the hearts of readers?

Here are 3 simple ways:

1.  Locate your story clearly in a genre.  A story that is not easily defined in a genre is typically dismissed LitFic (Literary Fiction).  Yes, LitFic is a genre all on its own.  LitFic should enchant the reader by its power of language or delicacy of perception.  But, if you write a novel that doesn’t fit into a specific genre then you better be a damn fine writer, because not only will you have a difficult time with agents and publishers but with readers, too.  So flaunt your genre quickly in those opening lines.

2.  Give a teasing glimpse of the plot conflicts in your book.  If your story fails to quickly introduce conflict, it’s either LitFic or a bad story.  Conflict is the lifeblood of your story so start the stakes right out of the chute.  Let two or more characters be in conflict immediately before readers turn to page two.  Or, your protagonist in conflict with themselves, or external forces.  Shake up the readers adrenaline!  Get their blood pumping!  Their eyes wide on the page before them!  You can do this with narrative or dialogue.  Sometimes dialogue is an easy way to kick-start the conflict, foreshadowing events to come.  Put your indispensable statement in the first scene.  An event, a revealing passage of characterization, dialogue, setting, or a provocative assertion by the narrator.  Without it, your story doesn’t get going.

3.  Enchant the reader with your style.  Flaunt your style of writing — your voice — in the first paragraph.  The restraint and balance of those lines tells the reader they’re in good hands.  Don’t disappoint them with… “It was a dark and stormy night.”  When a reader has invested their time and money it is your duty to repay it.  You do that by enthralling them with your words.  Enchanting them with your hook.  Intriguing them with the story question you raise.  And don’t forget to end your story well, too.  No one will buy the sequel, if there is one, if you don’t end the first book well.  One way to do that is to leave one unanswered question.  Not a plot hole, just one teasingly tantalizing question that makes them want to buy book two.

What are some of the ways you like to begin your stories?  I would love to read the opening lines of either your work in progress or your most recent novel.  Leave me the first couple of lines in the comment section and get opinions from future readers.  It’s a great way to judge if you’ve done it well.  Don’t include the genre.  Let us guess to see how well you’ve done.

To kick it off, here are the opening lines from my WIP…

The still silence of the night is my addiction. There’s no better drug on earth. It’s an incredible feeling to know I’m the only one awake. The only person stirring among peaceful, darkened homes. Alone in the dark I am free. Alive. Invincible. Nothing can touch me.

48 Comments

  1. Start of my novel:

    If there was one thing Taylor hated more than fire, it was firefighters.
    Maybe it was the swirling tongues of orange light as it devoured her childhood home, her memories, and the screams of her mother as they dragged a screaming twelve-year-old away with gloved hands. They were so inhuman. And still, three years later, Taylor would wake up in cold sweat and screams she didn’t recognize as her own until her father was beside her with whispers of comfort.
    How curious that it was also an inhuman beast with small fires for eyes that both saved and ruined her life.

    Criticism and input is appreciated, thanks! 😀

    • Very intriguing. This opening raises story questions and makes me curious about the “inhuman beast.” Great job! It’s either a fantasy novel, or a mash-up with fantasy elements, right? I’d definitely read on.

  2. Just came across your blog. This is a very interesting topic. My husband has just self published his second novel. We’d very much appreciate your taking a look at the first lines. Love to hear your comments. I’m very new to this process.

    “My Father? He was killed in an explosion. It was for us. He died that way, taking care of us. That’s how I like to think of it anyway. The winter of fifty-eight, hauling gasoline over Wheeler Peak in a snowstorm in the dead of night. The road turns to a sheet of ice. I’ve tried to picture it a million times. The blast! Christ Almighty! Must have been like something out of this world.”

    • This is a tough one. Instead of starting with “My father?” when no one has asked the question, have you thought about having the narrator recall the story instead? Maybe something like, The day my father died by a fiery blast, in the winter of fifty-eight, the roads had turned to a sheet of ice.
      But then, you’ll have to “show” how that relates to your story by starting the action. Remember, starting too early will lose your reader. Start to late, and the reader is confused. It’s a fine line. Also, make sure you’re using “active” and not “passive” voice. Hope this helps.

      • Thank you. I’ll pass that along to my husband. The novel itself follows the careers of four young men entering the seminary to become Catholic priests. The story deals with a wide variety of social issues within the clergy itself including mandatory celibacy and the discordant behavior it frequently engenders, the Vatican’s unyielding refusal to ordain women, the terrible delimma in which gay priests find themselves as guardians of a religious tradition that condemns homosexual acts. There’s a love story; a pedophilia murder; greed for power and money; women’s rights; good men and bad men and the ultimate epiphany of one who has fallen so far away from the moral principles on which the church was original based. It’s way better than it sounds with a grand weave of interesting characters and locales. Thanks again for your comments.

  3. Well, I just discovered this through a FB posting. I apologize for the delay. Here’s the opening of my debut novel, “(Marvin’s) World of Deadheads”:
    “Oh, shit!” were the last words Marvin spoke.
    The last thing Marvin heard was, Thump!
    He stood up, a little dazed from the impact, and inspected his clothes. They didn’t seem to be any worse for the wear; no dirt or stains, no tears, not even a scuff on his shoes. He looked himself over, all six-feet two-inches, and he didn’t see any blood, but he knew one thing for certain: Marvin Broadstein, “Marv” to his girlfriend – no, that wasn’t right – his fiancée, Jenna, “Brody” to his friends and coworkers, was dead.

    • Sci-Fi or Fantasy– it passes the first test. He was hit by a moving vehicle (car, train, bus, etc.)– nice description. Yes, It leaves me wanting to know: 1.) is he a zombie? 2.) How he is dead but talking? 3.) What happens next? The only place you lost me was the end after “one thing for certain…” It was a little confusing. Other than that, I liked it very much.

      • I had no idea what genre I was writing in. I suspected Urban Fantasy. I’ve since been informed it’s Paranormal Romantic Comedy.
        The place you got lost is made clear fairly soon. His fiancee, Jenna, calls him “Marv” and an old college buddy (also dead), who shows up to Marvin’s funeral, calls him “Brody.”

        I’ve since learned an awful lot about the craft of writing. I’ve landed a job as a theater critic and columnist for the local (daily) newspaper, and I’m working on the sequel to Marvin, titled “(Jenna’s) Gang of Deadheads.”

        • Good for you! That’s wonderful news. We all learn as we go, and never stop learning. I notice each novel I write gets better and better. That’s the nature of the beast I guess. Good luck to you.

  4. All night I have been tossed in this fearful storm. Dying unlawfully, me and my kind blacken and boil the seas; can quiet it at other times if it so please us. With four stiffening fingers I am fighting the waves, sputtering onward. Tangled in broken netting I am flung this way and that, unable to know if I am moving forwards or back as, half the while, nibbles come at me from underneath. I’m faint now and fading. It is so cold in the sea December time I have not much strength left now to reach the shore.

  5. I went there last night purpose steering a true course in my heart and my soul aflame, knowing that he would kill me and how it would be done. God be thanked I woke to the danger he threatens and so set my sails one final time. Though I am the last in our line and this coast will not know our like again, it was the only hope I had to save my beloved Yawltown.

  6. Reblogged this on Patricia Strunk – Autorenblog and commented:
    Gilt nicht nur für Thriller! 🙂

  7. When people say that death is a part of life, it makes me want to smash their face in. Death isn’t a part of life, it’s the effin end of life. Blam. Over. Done. There’s no cycle, no circle, it’s a one-way street to oblivion with no turnoffs and no afterlife. Or maybe there is. Lucky me, I’ll get to find out a lot sooner than most people I know.

    • Super! Raises a story question. Intriguing. As far as genre, since the protagonist will die soon my guess is either the story is about his/her “life” after death or he/she is a scientist of some sort doing experiments in dying, using themselves as the guinea pig. Therefore, I’d say fantasy or sci-fi.

  8. What a fun post! My first book comes out in February. This is the first line:

    He was gorgeous and he was naked but, unfortunately, he was dead.

  9. It’s a wonder my first encounter with Cade Palomo made such a favorable and lasting impression on me, given the annoying blue lights flashing in my rearview mirror the whole time and all the rigmarole over the fact that I had to fetch my license from under the seat. Detective Palomo wasn’t happy about losing sight of my hands.

  10. Tyler Schremp had experienced black moods before in his twenty-six years, but never anything like this.
    This was hardscrabble rock-bottom. Except, this time, it was below rock-bottom — far below sea level, somewhere wedged in the inky crotch of an unmapped crevasse in some nethermost nadir of the Marianas Trench; black, silent, oxygen-free.
    Absurdity had always been his friend. Now it was his foe.
    The sheer senselessness of life haunted Schremp like a duck on a unicycle, only this time the unicycle belonged to a runaway circus bear in a platypus mask wielding a dildo, intent on mayhem. There would be no outracing the unicycle this time. With Weena gone, all was lost.

  11. This is great advice – thanks for sharing. I really enjoyed reading the opening lines from you, Mike and SK Nicholls, too. Now I’m off to read my first 100 words!

  12. How about this from my novel-in-progress, THE GUNS OF MIAMI:

    I awoke in my sweaty hotel room in the middle of the night. Pushing back the sleep, my mind and senses sluggishly moved into gear.

    The shabby air unit hummed uncertainly and hadn’t cooled things down any. Musty odors filled my nostrils, and noises drifted into the room from the restless city.

  13. I love that! I’m going out on a limb here because I don’t usually share, but my husband and I are having a debate. I want to start my novel off with a line or two that explain what’s going on in Richard’s head. Just a couple, but my husband wants me to leave this alone. I think it’s loose.

    Already running late for an appointment in Winter Park, Richard drove the little Mercedes AMG SLK convertible north on Orange Avenue. Between lights, he skillfully navigated lanes through moderate nighttime traffic. As he approached Michigan Avenue coming into Orlando proper, two figures came darting across the road from his left. He swerved and slammed on the brakes to avoid striking them. Tires squealed as he stopped in the middle lane. They stood like deer in the headlights, a woman and a girl. The tall lady struck the hood of the car hard with a hand that held a pair of stiletto heels. A transfer truck passed to the left blowing the horn, rolling like thunder. The lady jumped, grabbing the smaller one close.

    • Well, you’ve definitely caught my interest. As far as your genre goes, I’m guessing romance or mystery. If you’re asking my opinion, I think a couple of lines about what Richard’s thinking would be very intriguing.

      • That’s exactly what I told My husband. I want the couple of lines about what Richard is thinking!!! It is crime friction. A murder mystery/crime thriller.

        • Hey, you’re the author! That’s what I tell my husband when I disagree about the way the story should go. 🙂

          • “There was only one thing worse for business than not solving the case, and that was keeping a new client waiting.” What about this as a lead in sentence? It conveys that he’s thinking about his business. He’s solving cases, and he’s concerned about first impressions.

            • I love it! Now we know without a doubt it’s genre, mystery/crime, and it sucks the reader right in. Great job!

              • I was exhausted when I read your new opening so I’m replying again. These new lines also make me wonder… Is there a case he didn’t solve? Which raises a story question immediately. Awesome!

  14. I think this post is fab!! Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom with us. I have really benefited from reading your post – thx 🙂

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