Stephen King’s latest novel – his 50th – is out today. “Doctor Sleep” is a 35-years-later sequel to his hit horror classic The Shining. And after that long of wait, it’s no surprise to hear that it can take the great author weeks, or even years, to write a book’s opening line.
King fans will be thrilled to know that Doctor Sleep finally tells us what happened to Danny Torrance. He’s no longer a kid wandering the halls of The Overlook Hotel in Colorado but a middle aged man in Connecticut, working at a hospice where he’s even more haunted by his ‘special’ psychic powers.
The Opening Line
King was interviewed in a recent article for The Atlantic on the power of opening lines. He says there all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good one, but says what they all should do is provide a “hook” to engage the reader’s interest right away. Says King, “There’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
Here’s his opening line in Doctor Sleep:
“On the second day of December in the year of 1977, one of Colorado’s great resort hotels burned to the ground.”
And it took him how long to write that? It doesn’t even sound right. Why not write “On December 2nd, 1977…”
But King is staying true to his style, which he says is a must for an opening line. “It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style. For me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about voice a lot, when I think they really just mean style.”
Blogs vs Books
Most of us aren’t writing books, however, but blogs. The opening line is still key.
Remember, it takes about three minutes for someone to decide if a presentation is worth listening to. It takes someone about three seconds to decide if something is worth reading. Online, you actually have less time to catch a reader’s attention. That’s because online even more than in print, we scan rather than read.
I especially admire how bloggers of business news can take sometimes dry, complicated topics and turn out something fun to read. A good first sentence (or two) will often include an interesting twist on words -- or just plain get your attention:
Seth Godin: The viral music video of the moment is right here.
MarketWatch: Is the no-tip movement about to reach, well, a tipping point?
WSJ: The last thing most parents expect to see packed for college is a pair of cold feet.
Marketwatch: Throwing a wedding costs a fortune. Going to one isn’t a bargain either.
Huffington Post: It carried hippies through the 1960s, hauled surfers in search of killer waves during endless summers and serves as a workhorse across the developing world, but the long, strange trip of the Volkswagen van is ending.
Here are some tips I use when writing a blog’s opening line:
- Don’t waste your best energy on the headline. Write that last and focus first on your opening sentence. In the news industry, the editor, not the reporter writes the headline. Those often need a fresh set of eyes …even if they’re your own.
- Be relevant! This is more important than anything else. Tie in to what people are talking about. (I referenced King’s book coming out today.)
- Keep it simple. (“This is what happened.” The opening line from Stephen King’s “The Mist”)
- Humor (my favorite)
- Quotes I’m not a big fan of starting with a quote, but they work well in a second paragraph or when set off from the rest of the blog with different typeface.
- An interesting data point
- A question. I’m finding a lot of blogs are leading with what the readers are asking about.
For blogs that are external, use trending words in your title and lead paragraph. This will increase how often it will come up in search.
Avoid Writer’s Block!
And for all writing, despite what I’m harping on here, don’t get so stuck on perfecting your lead, that you either get stuck, or not willing to change it to make it better. I often come up with a better first sentence as I write a piece.
Going back to another King horror classic, remember his opening line from Needful Things?
“You’ve been here before.”
And indeed we all have. Think of that the next time you start out writing and remember even the greats have a tough time getting going.