The Dos and Don’ts of Opening Lines and Paragraphs by Lizzie Hermanson

This week I began re-write #476 of my opening scene – at least that’s how it feels and we’ve all been there! So I began researching what makes a good first line. How do we grab the reader so that they want to read the next page and the one after that?

Les Edgerton believes that with the modern media age and shrinking attention spans

“…beginnings have changed more than any other part of story structure.”

So I have put together some of the resources and advice I discovered along the way.

061116 hooked

Excerpts from Hooked by Les Edgerton:

  • An opening sentence or paragraph should contain: “Mystery, intrigue, shock, a revealing glimpse of an interesting and original character that promises excitement or some other strong emotion to come.”
  • “The important thing is that what you open with presents a question that the reader will want to answer. The one thing that shouldn’t be present in opening lines is exposition.”

He advises not to open with:

  • Waking up or dreams.
  • Too little dialogue (because editors “… look for lots and lots of nice white space”).
  • Dialogue (because the reader “… doesn’t have a clue who the speaker is, who she is speaking to, and in what context,” and “has to kind of backtrack in her mind to put it all into context.”

Hawaii, Paradise Isle, Margie on Rocks, laughing

Excerpts from Making Your Openings Pop by guest blogger Margie Lawson at Writers In The Storm Blog:

“Margie’s top ten reasons why agents and editors stop reading:”

  • “Didn’t get locked in POV character’s skin in first or second sentence.”
  • “No setting. No idea where we were. Floating heads.”
  • “No hint about a story promise.”
  • “Boring blocks of backstory.”
  • “Voice wasn’t distinctive.”
  • “Flat writing. Didn’t use structure and style to make the read cadence-driven.”
  • “Opened with a dream or flashback. Fooled the reader.”
  • “Confusing. Stuff happened, but I didn’t know why, so I didn’t care.”
  • “Too nicey-nice. No tension.”
  • “Overwritten. Writerly. Trying too hard to impress.”

She goes on to say:

“My research reveals that some New York Times bestsellers almost always use the more obscure rhetorical devices in their first few pages. Harlan Coben almost always uses anaphora in the first few pages of his books.”

Anaphora is “using the same word or phrase to START three (or more) consecutive phrases or sentences.”

Eg from Harlan Coben’s NO SECOND CHANCE, opening paragraph:

I know that I lost a lot of blood.
I know that a second bullet skimmed the top of my head . . .
I know that my heart stopped.”

061116 alexandra sokoloff

Excerpts from author, Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog post:  Something Has To Happen.

  • “Something has to happen, immediately, that gives us an idea of what the story is about.”
  • “… you should get to your INCITING INCIDENT and CALL TO ADVENTURE as soon as possible. Especially if you are a new writer, you cannot afford to hold this back.”
  • “With almost no exceptions, you should start your book with an actual scene, in which your main character (or villain, if that’s who you start with) is caught up in action….The reader should not just be watching the action, but feeling the sweat, smelling the salt air, feeling the roiling of their stomach.”
  • “Identify the sensation and experience you want to evoke in your reader – and then make sure you’re evoking it.”
  • “Use all six senses.”
  • “Show, don’t tell. Detail the internal drives of your character and set the genre.”


Excerpts from New Article Series: 9 Story Openings To Avoid, by agent, Kristin Nelson. (There are 8 more articles still to come in this series).

“Your opening pages might be in trouble if…your novel opens with your main character alone somewhere thinking

Avoid “The Deadly R’s”:

  • Remembering
  • Reminiscing
  • Reflecting
  • Ruminating

“… imagine that you’re a movie director. It’s your job to capture the first action of your story on screen and make sure it captivates your audience. If your movie-direction of your novel’s first pages requires a narrative voice-over, then you might be in trouble.”


So armed with all of the above, I have come up with a brand new, shiny opening line:

‘There was an upside to being blackmailed.’

Of course, by next week,  I’ll be on re-write #477 and  everything will change again!

How do you start your novel?


Lizzie Hermanson writes contemporary romance when her cat isn’t hogging the keyboard. She loves ‘happy ever afters’ and the ‘feel good factor’.






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