Friday, March 7, 2014

Busted!—Authors Caught Raising Questions in Opening Sentences

When considering how to open their stories, authors too often ask themselves:

What information do I want to feed out to the reader at the start? 

This approach is fraught with problems. If you are a writer, you undoubtedly already know that we change our minds about this a lot, until our openings become the most often-rewritten aspect of a manuscript.

Make no mistake: opening a novel can be tricky, and the effort deserves all of the time and attention you are willing to apply. But a surer approach can be found with a different question:

What is it my reader wants from my opening? 

The basic answer: He wants to gain orientation to the story while questions are raised. These questions create little mysteries that tip him into the story.

Since this technique works regardless of genre, let’s look at the ways a few disparate authors successfully employ it—with only their first three sentences.

The Salt God’s Daughter by Ilie Ruby
We ran wild at night, effortless, boundless, under a blood-red sky—to where and to what we couldn’t have known.
I’m hooked already by what she’s fed out—the running wild, that blood-red sky—but Ruby has also raised questions. Who are they? Why couldn’t they have known where they were going?
We craved it, that someplace. 
"Craved"—great word. Introducing a deep desire helps us bond with the character. But Ruby stretches out the mystery by referencing the unknown place. What is it, and why do they crave it?
We were two little girls, sisters, daughters with no mother, distrustful of the freedom we were given, knowing she shouldn’t have left.
More information: the “we” is defined. Yet she raises a new mystery: although they have no mother, the mother is referred to as having left. And while we were told they run “wild” and effortless,” they are distrustful of their freedom. This suggests conflict that orients the reader to this specific story.

Note that even without a label, the literary genre is clearly conveyed through word choice alone. I would read on to find out about these little girls. Would you?

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand 
All he could see, in every direction, was water. 
This information orients us to setting yet raises the question, where is he? Who is he?
It was June 23, 1943. 
Just an info dump? Not really, since Hillenbrand trusts that her reader will know this is during World War II, and wonder whether the war is part of the story. The specific date, added to the storytelling beginning, suggests that this is a historical narrative. The book jacket will tell us it is nonfiction.
Somewhere on the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Army Air Forces bombardier and Olympic runner Louie Zamperini lay across a small raft, drifting westward.
Our war suspicion is affirmed but with intriguing details that make us worry for this man: he is a bombardier in a small raft, and a runner with no land. What will happen to this defenseless man in a war zone?

I am thoroughly intrigued by this opening, and while no huge fan of war stories, I would read on to find out what happens. Would you?

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson 
Gram is worried about me. 
Great opening, with an emotion word as its centerpiece. Why is Gram worried?

It’s not because my sister Bailey died four weeks ago, or because my mother hasn’t contacted me in sixteen years, or even because suddenly all I think about is sex.
This is a great way to orient the reader to both the character and the young adult genre. It does smack of what the writer wants you to know, but remember, orienting the reader is a good thing! And Nelson doesn’t forget to raise a question. I, for one, am dying to know if her grandmother knows that all this character thinks about is sex!
She is worried about me because one of her house-plants has spots.
Such non sequiturs always make me hear my dad saying, “What does that have to do with the price of eggs?” (Note that this is a question raised by the prose.) Or is it a non sequitur at all? The next sentence tells us—wouldn’t you read on to find out?

These and many other authors teach us this about openings:

Give a little information, raise a question.

Give a little more information, raise a new question.

Continue this recipe until your inciting incident, through its storytelling magic, indelibly cleaves your reader to your protagonist for the rest of the book, and you will have an opening that will not allow your reader to put your book down.

Flip through some of your favorite books. Do they exhibit this technique? If so, feel free to share the first three sentences!

Kathryn Craft
is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service, and the author of The Art of Falling, a novel by Sourcebooks. Her monthly series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the StormConnect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.


  1. Always a good starting gambit, Kathryn. I loved your illustrations of the technique. If more writers employed your advice, they might attract more readers. Thanks for this.

    1. Yes it works beautifully Stuart and there are so many possible ways to make use of it! Thanks for your comment.

  2. Great examples of concise, engaging openings. Thanks.

  3. I was thinking of trying something like, 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...' think it has a chance?

    1. Chris: Well, it does raise a question, that is true—Why is this yoyo ripping off Dickens?—but perhaps this isn't the RIGHT question...

  4. I love this post and the examples that illustrate the point. I will share it with my critique group.

  5. Wonderful examples, Kathryn. Made me want to read all three books. Raising questions in the opening as opposed to a simple character/setting introduction is so much more engaging. I think mainstream and literary authors have used that technique more than some genre writers. That's why I think one should read outside of the genre in which they write to pick up techniques that will raise a story out of the ordinary. I've tried to do that to some extent in my mysteries.

    1. Maryann I couldn't agree more about reading outside your genre! I utilize many suspense and thriller techniques to sustain reader interest in my women's fiction. When you need a technique, why not learn from the genre that does it best?

    2. I really don't understand why some people will never read outside a certain genre. Not only does it help in writing, it can broaden one's world view so much.

  6. I love this piece. The examples are perfect for writers of all genres. Now I need to go out and read some of those books that I haven't read. I highly recommend The Sky is Everywhere for those who haven't read it.

  7. Thanks Janice—it's because of your recommendation that I thought I'd put the first three liens of The Sky is Everywhere to the test! I look forward to reading it.

  8. What a great post, Kathryn. I will now go back to the first page of my WIP and see if it would make me want to read the book if I didn't already know what happens.

    1. Thanks Polly--but of course this is a wonderful use of critique partners and editors. We can't possibly not know what happens!

    2. Interestingly, going back to the beginning of my book solved the problem I was having. So thanks again.

    3. Great news! Thanks for sharing.

  9. Fantastic! I love these examples. My favorite opening line of all time is "The last camel collapsed at noon" from Ken Follett's Key to Rebecca.

  10. Not only in my own writing, but also in every book I've edited, I've found that the opening sentences — and, in fact, often the whole first chapter — are in dire need of revamping to set the stage for the story and hook the reader. Great post, Kathryn. :-)

  11. Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively. In order to make my point understood without question. *** one of my faves "The Art of Racing in the Rain" Garth Stein ***


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