A recent look at our bookshelves reminded us that books that engage and captivate us from the outset are hands down our favorites.

Authors who understand their opening lines are the most crucial words they compose are likely to be the most successful. It’s an elusive skill, but one that every writer of fiction and non-fiction should strive to master.

Take, for example, these openers:

  • “I was an ambitious girl child. I knew even then that I had to be, in that environment of thugs, thieves, killers, prostitutes, gamblers — you name it, you’d find it in Trench Town.”

In “No Woman, No Cry: My Life with Bob Marley,” Rita Marley reaches out and compels readers to join her as she navigates the squalid existence of Jamaica’s Trench Town, and shares her complex relationship with reggae legend Bob Marley.

  • “I had been sent to Mexico to cover a murder, one of a remarkable kind. And since it had not yet happened, I had been ordered to get photographs, too.”

There’s more than a little mystery and intrigue in James A. Michener’s opening two sentences of “Mexico,” his impressive history of the Central American nation and the art of bullfighting.

These examples place readers in the midst of the stories the writers are sharing, describe important scenes and challenges, and create anticipation for the chapters still to be revealed. Tension and suspense are present in each and give readers arresting reasons to reward the authors with their attention.

We suggest going back and taking a look at your opening sentences after you’ve finished your book. Doing so may provide you with the perspective and appreciation of the manuscript that allows a fresh approach to unveiling your work to readers. Think about how you might do that in the fewest, but most impactful, words possible. Be merciless in making every word count and discriminating in word selection.

One final thing to remember: The opening lines of your book should be written with the express aim of creating an emotional connection with your readers. With that accomplished, you won’t be likely to lose them.

Fran Allred and Mickey Johnson are the owners of We Edit Books in Huntington. They have a combined 68 years’ experience as newspaper and book editors in West Virginia and across the South and Midwest. Reach them at weeditbooks.com and [email protected].