Opening Lines

I should complete a first draft before deciding on my opening lines. I know I know I know this, but I’m starting a new novel, and I want the first chapter to be really good, so I just spent a morning re-writing what I drafted yesterday.

You’re wasting your time. I scold myself, and it’s deserved. I don’t yet know these characters, don’t know where they’ll take this story. Write like your fingers are on fire, Kathi Appelt told me. Get all the way to the end before you revise, Ellen Howard told me.

I know I know I know this, but revision is so satisfying, and blank screens so terrifying.

And so I procrastinate.

I pulled a bunch of books from my shelves and poured over opening lines. I know these authors didn’t write these lines in the first week that they sat down to work on these books. I know I know I know this.

But still.

I want to write this well. Read these openings.


Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

They took me in my nightgown.

Thinking back, the signs were there—family photos burned in the fireplace. Mother sewing her best silver and jewelry into the lining of her coat late at night, and Papa not returning from work. My younger brother, Jonas, was asking questions. I asked questions, too, but perhaps I refused to acknowledge the signs. Only later did I realize that Mother and Father intended we escape. We did not escape.

We were taken.


Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone

When I was born, the doctor said, “I’m sorry.”

I had a full shock of dark hair and long legs like the rest of the women in Freddie’s side of the family, but no one noticed these things. No one saw anything but the wings, which were heart-shaped, crinkled like a paper fan. They were smaller than Freddie’s palm, slick with primordial ooze, compressed accordion-style against my back. The doctor whispered, “Some kind of birth defect.” Defect. “How some kids are born with tails and others with cleft palates.” He mopped his brow. “But I’ve never seen anything like this.”


Shine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer

Deep in darkness, there was a tiny light. Inside the light, he floated in a spaceship. It felt cold to him, floating there. Inside his body, he felt the cold of space. He could still look out the round windows of the rocket and see the Earth. He could also see the moon sometimes, coming closer. The Earth rotated slowly and the spaceship moved slowly, relative to the things that were around it. There was nothing he could do now, one way or the other. He was part of a spaceship going to the moon. He wore white paper booties instead of shoes. He wore a jumpsuit instead of underwear. He was only human, or scant flesh and long bone, eyes clouded, and body breakable. He was off, launched from the Earth, and floating in space. He had been pushed, with force, away.

But in his mind, Maxon found himself thinking of home.


Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Everybody likes sugar.

Folks say, “There wouldn’t be any good food without sugar.” Like rhubarb cobbler. Blueberry Pie. Yellow cake.

But I hate sugar. I won’t eat it. Not ever.

“No sweets, just savories,” I used to tell Ma. “Corn bread. Grits.” Even nasty okra and green beans are better than sugar.

There’s all kinds of sugar. Crystals that turn lemons into lemonade. Syrup that cools into taffy. Or pralines, brittle. There’s even sugarcane you can suck until your lips wrinkle and pucker.


Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan

I am sitting under the acacia tree on the ridge when I first see them: three men, in nice clothes, coming toward our house. Their shoulders are straight and their fat bellies strain against their belts when they walk. They are the image of power.

I wish I could see their faces, but my eyes aren’t good enough for that this far away. I peel off my long-sleeved shirt and my floppy hat with the cloth sewn onto the back and crawl to the edge of the ridge in nothing by my long pants. My skin burns so easily that I could never do this in the middle of the day, no matter how hot it was, but now that the sun is setting I can enjoy the feeling of the wind whispering over me. Our goats mill around me, eating their dinner; the breeze carries the smells of the evening meal my mother and sister are preparing up the slope. The three men walk to our door.

Hodi hodi!” the first man bellows.


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
Columbus, Ohio,
a country caught

between Black and White.

I am born not long from the time
or far from the place
my great-great-grandparents
worked the deep rich land
dawn till dusk
drank cool water from scooped-out gourds
looked up and followed
the sky’s mirrored constellation
to freedom.


Don’t you just feel hugged by the confidence in these voices? I do. Hugged. Embraced. Encouraged. Inspired. Ready now to go back and write like my fingers are on fire.

8 thoughts on “Opening Lines”

  1. Oh, how I love every single, beautiful word! Thanks for sharing these opening lines. I’m adding every book to my summer reading list.

  2. When are we next going to get together, Pen?! You can borrow mine. I’ve read them all except Michele Young-Stone’s, which I just got a couple weeks ago. And I’ve got 4 of the 6 signed by the authors. I just love my collection of signed books!

  3. I remember the opening lines of Brotherhood. Every word was perfect. I knew what was happening yet I didn’t. Something bad was happening. What was it? Was the main character in trouble? You really created an amazing beginning to Brotherhood and I bet you can do the same with this new novel. Recently, I fell into the opening line trap, redoing the beginning of the chapter so many times before I got it right. Now I realize that you should just write. Just write. Thank you for a wonderful post!

  4. I’m so glad this was helpful for you. In an early draft of Brotherhood, my opening scene was Shad following his brother to a klan meeting. Kathi Appelt read the draft and suggested that the brother getting arrested might make for a better opening. I played around with her suggestion, and really liked it. In my early draft, the arrest scene had been on page — I don’t know — 175 or something. Now I have to remind myself of that. Getting all the way to the end before deciding on the beginning is super important. It’s just hard to keep myself from revising.

  5. Such great openings. And my son LOVED Brotherhood, Anne. Thank you for sharing the beginning of my novel. Out of these books, I’ve read Lydia’s Shine, Shine, Shine. I’m a big fan, but now, reading these beginnings, I’m most attracted to SUGAR and BROWN GIRL DREAMING. It’s interesting what initially attracts us. Writing is so personal, so subjective.

  6. So glad your son enjoyed BROTHERHOOD! And on the openings — yes, so subjective. In this group, SUGAR is the most different from the rest. You can feel the girl’s voice, and the flavor not only of the foods she mentions but of the setting, the times. Enjoy your summer reading, and thanks for writing such a compelling opener, Michele!

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