book inc  –  journal  –  Writing Openings To Keep Your Readers Reading

Writing Openings To Keep Your Readers Reading

In his latest "Trust the Process" column, J. Greg Phelan discusses how to immediately engage your reader with strong opening lines.

By J. Greg Phelan

November 10, 2022

It happens every time you pick up a new book. You turn to page one with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Will it draw you in? Or push you away? After reading the book’s opening lines, you know. This book isn’t for you. Or, every so often you experience that wonderful feeling—one of life’s great pleasures—that the author has a good story to tell. You’re in good hands.

This is no guarantee you’re going to like the characters, the twists and turns of the plot, or be satisfied by the ending, but the author, at least for now, accomplished their mission. You want to keep reading.

How do we make our readers feel like they are in good hands?

I posed this question in our Book Revision Lab, and our crackerjack novel and memoir writers got on it, analyzing comp titles that each gave us that “in good hands” feeling. Of the ones mentioned, some I had read like Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. Others I want to read based on their dynamic openings, like One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus, One Italian Summer by Rebecca Serle, and Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams.

Let’s take a closer look at a novel’s opening lines.

As for me, I chose French Braid by Anne Tyler. Tyler’s seemingly effortless prose makes it easy to sink into the story from the very first paragraph.

This happened back in March 2010, when the Philadelphia train station still had the kind of information board that clickety-clacked as the various gate assignments rolled up. Serena Drew stood directly in front of it, gazing intently at the listing for the next train to Baltimore. Why did they wait so long to post their gates here? In Baltimore, they told people farther ahead.

The opening line is so unfussy, simply saying “This happened in 2010 …”. Then the author presents the wonderful sensory detail of the “clickety-clacked” information board which transports us back in time. We also get a strong sense of Serena’s character in very few words–she’s impatient and she likes to compare.

Don’t you want to read on? I do.

Her boyfriend was standing beside her, but he was more relaxed. Having sent a single glance towards the board, he was studying his phone now. He shook his head at some message and then flipped on down to the next one.

Her boyfriend is more relaxed. How simple an explanation is that? But so effective. Humans like to compare things. Contrasting our characters is a quick way to make them real. The dude is distracted looking at the phone.

Sentence by sentence Tyler masterly spins the opening of her story with plain, seemingly effortless prose. She gives us wonderful details that spark our interest. We have questions and she answers them, not withholding anything, allowing us to settle into the story as the stakes become absolutely clear. Will Serena be happy with her boyfriend? Will they make it?

Revision is key to polishing your opening lines.

The openings of the other books taught us similar tricks on how to keep up the vivid and continuous dream, as John Gardner called it, making sure there is absolutely nothing that pulls your reader out of the dream. That distracts them.

These skilled writers make it look easy but it’s not. It’s hard work. I’m sure they revised their openings over and over again to make them seem so effortless.

That’s how we put our readers in good hands. We keep revising. And learn from the best.

J. Greg Phelan has written for The New York Times, America, and other publications. He is the co-founder and board chair of Project Write Now, a nonprofit writing center providing classes and outreach for writers of all ages. In 2020, he launched book inc, a community for memoir and novel writers.