Grading My Opening Lines


Recently I’ve started two different projects that have brought to mind opening lines in novels. I started to think about my own novels and their opening lines. I thought, why not critique each opening line with a grade?

Obviously I’m grading on a curve because I’m slightly biased.

From The Promise Remains:

The young woman stood on the deck of the log cabin, looking into the tear-filled eyes of the man she loved.

I’d give this a solid B. It instantly tells you what sort of story this is going to be, along with making you ask a question of what’s happening. Yes, a bit simple and clichéd, but heartfelt like that story.

From The Watermark:

I wish I could say that before you stands a new man.

I’d give this a B-Plus. I love the voice in this story and still regard it as one of my favorites.

From The Second Thief:

“You sure you know where you’re going?”

I’d give this a B-minus only for the fact that there’s a little irony in the question. Yes, it’s a simple question from a cab driver, but that’s also the whole point of the novel. Where is he going when he dies?

For Three Roads Home, I decided to break down all three of the novellas opening lines. So this is from “Somebody” in Three Roads Home:

Charissa Thomas found her husband sitting on the couch, staring at her laptop.

C-Minus. Not very interesting, to be honest.

From “In Care Of” in Three Roads Home:

Are we allowed to say goodbye?

B. I like the simple question which is at the heart of this story.

From “Still Life at Sunset” in Three Roads Home:

She heard the brush of footsteps before she saw him.

I'd grade it a C. Again, it’s not really that compelling or interesting.

From Gun Lake:

He could see her down by the water.

D. The opening prologue doesn’t serve any point really, and should’ve been edited out. The opening line in the first letter was great, but oh well. Live and learn.

From Admission:

Something deep and terrifying jerked him awake.

I’d give this a B-Plus. This is immediate and draws you in to what happened.

From Blinded:

“Mind if I join you?”

C. I’d give it a worse grade if this wasn’t the single line that starts the whole story. I did that on purpose, having it start with a simple question that could have been answered with a “no.” But for our hero, unfortunately he says why not.

From Sky Blue:

In my dream I hold my child.

Okay, maybe I’m biased, but I’d give this an A. I remember where and when I came up with that line. I texted myself the line and it remained. Because of the personal nature of the story, I’ve always loved this line.

From Out of the Devil’s Mouth:

It was November, just a few days before Thanksgiving, the ground hard and the city sidewalks sprinkled with a light snow, and I truly didn’t know if I was going to live to see turkey and dressing.

D-Plus. Maybe I’m being harsh, but this sounds corny to me. The “turkey and dressing” line sounds lame.

From Isolation:

It was the sort of hot summer night that made a young woman abandon her fears and jump into the lake with barely anything on.

A-Minus. On the other hand, I love this opening line. It goes back to the horror movies of my youth, where pretty young girls always go skinny-dipping. I was referring to that and was glad that my Christian publisher didn’t make me change it.

From Ghostwriter:

On his knees, Dennis Shore cries out.

Solid B. This is present tense and immediate. It also gives us the name of the main character right away. In a sense, Ghostwriter is all about Dennis Shore crying out and dealing with grief.

From Every Breath You Take:

You don’t remember when we used to dance together, but I do . . .

B-Plus. This is from the opening letter but I still regard it as the opening line. I love this line and how it refers to the thing that is a core of the story—a father dancing with his daughter on her wedding day.

From Broken:

So this is how it ends.

B-Plus. Simple and straightforward. But gets you right into the story.

From Solitary:

I run through the dark woods.

B. I love the opening prologue and feel this line works. I think I’m often less worried about the opening line than I am about the opening chapter.

Okay, so if you’ve read this far, then I’ll share the opening line from 40 which comes out in May:

He waits on the corner like a child at the bus stop in front of your home and his name is death.

Okay, maybe I’m still too close to this story, but I’d give this an A. Love this opening line.

An opening line doesn’t always have to be incredible for the story to work. But it’s interesting looking back over these and thinking about them. I would dare say the closing line of a novel is more important. And if I graded myself on those, I feel I’d get a much better grade since my endings are always very important to me.

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