A good opening line hooks your attention by doing one of seven things brilliantly.
Its job is to make you read this second sentence, which has the singular task of propelling your eyes towards the third sentence. This one.
Go back and read the first line of this article again. It uses ‘Opening Line Strategy #3’…
Opening Line Strategy #3
This strategy deploys an element of ‘curiosity’ to encourage you to read further. Curiosity is a potent editorial weapon that can be used to great effect in headlines and sub-headings.
In an ideal world, this approach should leave you wanting to know more. Or it should create a question that can only be answered by reading on. Here, the question the first sentence should intrigue you with is: “what are the seven things that opening lines do brilliantly?”
Here’s another curious example from The Atlantic:
You may not believe me, but I have news about global warming: Good news, and better news.
And another from The Guardian newspaper:
About a month ago, to my embarrassment, I learned I’d been tying my shoelaces wrongly my whole life.
Both lines leave you asking questions. Good and better news about global warming, you say? Great! What is it? Am I tying my shoelaces incorrectly? Surely there’s only one way to tie shoelaces?
Opening Line Strategy #3 is also used to great effect to kick off John Scalzi’s sci-fi novel Old Man’s War, where he writes:
I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.
Curiosity is just one of seven different approaches that you can use to increase the eyeball-pulling power of your article’s first line. As for the others, let’s start at the beginning…
Opening Line Strategy #1
A first line can simply set up the line that follows it. Or the one after that. You can use it to create expectation or intrigue, which following lines can elaborate on or contrast.
Here’s an example from Wired.com:
In the hype tsunami prior to Facebook’s May IPO, I doubt anyone wrote these words: “Instead of social media, you should invest in macaroni and cheese.” As it turns out, that’s exactly what you should have done.
And take a look at this one from Slate.com:
The dinosaurs of our childhood aren’t around anymore. The sluggish, swamp-bound pea-brains that haunted museum halls and trundled through picture books have been eviscerated by agile, hot-blooded, and, often, feathery dinosaurs that more accurately reflect what Tyrannosaurus rex and kin were actually like.
Opening Line Strategy #2
Asking a question of your reader is another smart way to keep them squarely focused on your content. Like this example from one of our own posts:
Did you know that there are 7 writing mistakes that a spell checker won’t spot?
Opening Line Strategy #4
By posing a question in Opening Line Strategy #2, you’re setting up an expectation that the second sentence will start to answer it. Showing some empathy towards a common problem can also be a winning opener.
Here’s a good example of a question that does exactly that from writetodone.com:
Have you ever thought you could be a great writer… if only you had the time?
This one from Firepole Marketing also hopes to tap into reader discontent, suggesting that ‘hey, we’ve all been there…':
We’ve all struggled to increase traffic, and every wannabe guru has a bag of tricks they’re eager to sell you.
Opening Line Strategy #5
An effective way to hold a reader’s attention is to disrupt their expectations, surprise them or swerve away from what is generally considered to be the ‘norm’.
Take this first sentence from George Orwell’s classic novel 1984:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
This opener from The Atlantic also promises to reveal information that you might not be aware of.
Behind every Google Map, there is a much more complex map that’s the key to your queries but hidden from your view.
Opening Line Strategy #6
If you’re struggling for an opening sentence or can’t think of how to start an article, try using a quote or an interesting statistic. Using information from an external source can often help you to catch the eye and hold a reader’s attention.
Check out this opening line from Fast Company:
Nearly 66% of companies on the Fortune 100 list in 1990 are not on the list some twenty-odd years later.
Opening Line Strategy #7
This last strategy is the simplest of the bunch. It requires little thought and just a little bit of bravery. Nevertheless, it can be a surprisingly effective tactic.
It is simply this: try deleting your first paragraph.
If you haven’t consciously optimized your opening line, there’s a good chance that deleting it (and your first paragraph) will make your article better. Why? Because intro paragraphs often ramble and often don’t get to the point quickly enough.
There are occasions when this approach is deliberate. The so-called ‘delayed intro’ is a tactic that you’ll often see in magazine or newspaper features. The writer either goes off on a loosely connected tangent before looping back to relevancy or uses the intro paragraph(s) to set the scene.
This works well in newspapers and magazines, where longer form writing is consumed in a linear way. But on the web, readers tend to skip and scan. If they’re not hooked by the content of your first paragraph, then they could abandon your content before they reach the end.
Deleting your first paragraph can be painful. But it’s often the most effective way to avoid unnecessary padding. Try it. This strategy won’t work for every article or blog post. But it might just give your content a little more ‘kerpow’ up-front.
A great first line doesn’t matter if…
There you have it. Seven ways to start an article with a killer opening line. If I’ve missed any, feel free to point them out in the comments section below.
As a general rule, your first line is the next most important bit of writing after your headline. Your second line is the next most important bit of writing after your first line. And so on. If you see any good lines, swipe them. Add them to a text file so you can use them as inspiration next time or as a sledgehammer to break through writer’s block.
Of course, there will hopefully come a time where none of these strategies will matter. When you’ve built up a loyal audience for your content, they will typically come back for WHAT you say, rather than HOW you say it.
But until then, try an Opening Line Strategy…