Most Common Writing Mistakes: Is Your Opening Line Lying to Your Readers?
Your opening line may be bristling with energy, danger, and barbed fishhooks with which to reel in your readers, but if the paragraph that follows pulls the old switcheroo, your reader is more likely to be irritated than impressed. Let’s take a look at an example of a lying line:
Jeanette rounded the bend in the mountain trail, and came face to face with a huge grizzly. The bear reared up on two legs and bellowed at her.
Scary, right? This opening line drags us into this exciting tale because we want to discover what happens to poor, trapped Jeanette. Then we read on…
I turned another page in the book and looked down at my two wide-eyed children, cuddled under my arms. “Too scary for you?”
If you can imagine the sound of air rushing out of a punctured balloon, you’ve pretty much captured the feeling of anyone reading this story. Sure, the author’s opening line hooked us—but it was just a lousy trick. The book isn’t even about Jeanette, and she certainly isn’t in imminent danger of becoming a slab of meat in the grizzly’s midmorning sandwich. This sort of trickery can take several forms, including…
The Dream Opening Line
Brett gasped for breath, struggling against the pull of the riptide as another wave hammered into his face. Suddenly, the shriek of his alarm clock yanked him from sleep, and he sat up in bed with a sigh of relief. Just a dream, thank goodness.
The Joke Opening Line
When Kelly screamed, Joanna whirled around from flipping the burgers to find her best friend with a vegetable knife and blood all over her hand. Joanna darted forward, grabbing a towel to stanch the blood, but Kelly burst out laughing and started licking the red stuff off her hand. “Gotcha! It’s just ketchup.”
The Hyperbolic Opening Line
“My life is over!” Sandra sobbed into the phone. “Do you realize what this means? I’m going to have to move to Argentina under an assumed name!” “Chill,” Callie said. “So you got a bad haircut, so what?”
The False Alarm Opening Line
Eric looked up from his class of kindergartners as the fire alarm shrieked through the building and the sprinklers blasted water from the ceiling. Heart pounding, he herded his screaming kids through the fire drill, only to be met halfway down the hall by the sheepish principal. Someone had accidentally set off the alarm.
Conceivably, you could make any of these lines work if the switcheroo isn’t a lie, but instead an important example of characterization (for instance, the Hyperbole example might be illustrating that Sandra is shallow, self-conscious, and prone to hysteria). But, too often, opening hooks like these are constructed for no other reason than to allow an otherwise boring opening to start off with a bang. Take a look at your opening line. Does it fool the reader into believing something is happening when it really isn’t? Does the information that follows appropriately build on the tension offered in this first line? If not, you may be lying to your readers without even realizing it. Readers, as the best friend any writer can have, always deserve to be treated with more respect than that.