• Great Beginnings: Marlena

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Great Beginnings     Comments 4 comments

    Discussion questions: Does the opening paragraph of Julie Buntin’s Marlena (below) make you want to read further? Why or why not? What kind of opening lines grab you, and what kind immediately turn you off? Let’s talk about it in the comments.


    We’ve been talking a lot lately about grabbing a literary agent’s attention with your query letter’s first few lines — the so-called hook.

    It’s the same idea when it comes to your book itself.

    With attention spans growing shorter every day, it has never been more important to hook a reader as quickly as possible — by the end of the first page, if not by the end of the first paragraph… if not by the end of the first sentence.

    To get a sense of what works and why, read as many openings as you can. Next time you’re in a bookstore, do that very thing. Circle the new releases or top sellers section and one by one read each book’s opening line. If you like the opening line, read the opening graf.

    And then assess. What kind of opening line makes you read the second line? What kind of opening line makes you close the book and put it back?


    This week, let’s take a look at the opener in the novel I’m reading, Julie Buntin’s Marlena. In the comments below, tell me what you think of it. Would you read more? Why or why not? Take a look at a few other comments as well to get a sense of what other readers are looking for.

    Opening paragraph of Marlena:


    Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are. I switch off my apartment light and she comes with the dark. The train’s eye widens in the tunnel and there she is on the tracks, blond hair swinging. One of our old songs starts playing and I lose myself right in the middle of the cereal aisle. Sometimes, late at night, when I’m fumbling with the key outside my apartment door, my eyes meet my reflection in the hallway mirror and I see her, waiting.



    david blogWriteByNight co-founder David Duhr has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

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    “Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are.” This opening line is authoritative. It’s a voice that requests but does not demand your attention. I wanted to read more, and did, then I went back and read the first line again.

    David Duhr

    It made me think about what I’d say if anyone were to come to me with “Tell me what you can’t forget.” Too much, I’d say. And not enough.


    The first line is great, “Tell me what you can’t forget and I’ll tell you who you are.” Makes me think of the things in my life I can’t forget. But the second line, “I switch off my apartment light and she comes with the dark.” completely loses me. I’m not interested in reading about this sob story. If the author had explored the ramifications of the first line a little more–made me interested in what sort of things he couldn’t forget and why–I’d feel differently. But as it stands, nope. How I might have done it: “Tell me what… Read more »

    Ann Russell

    I felt disconnected from the first sentence. The memories all jumped around. There has to be a way to pull in the reader quickly – and still create what the writer wants to achieve.

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