There is a lot of weight on opening lines, perhaps more so than on any other single line in your story. And in some ways there is good reason for this.
The opening line is the reader’s first impression of your story. If they don’t like it or don’t find it intriguing or engaging, they’re likely to stop reading the story and move on to something else. While the artistic merit of having a great opening line is perhaps not that important, the commercial necessity is certainly a big deal.
So with all of the weight an opening line must support established, I think there are really two things that the opening line of your story has to accomplish.
1.) Establish the voice of the story
Your opening line should tell your readers what they can expect in terms of the tone of your story. Is this story going to be funny, dramatic, bleak? Your readers should be able to get an idea, at least, of what they’re getting into right off the bat.
“Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.”
— The Book of Three, Lloyd Alexander
The above sentence from the incomparable Lloyd Alexander immediately tells us that we’re entering a story about a young man. We learn about what sort of boy Taran is, what sort of man Coll is, and we understand that this tale will be about coming of age and (likely) aimed at younger readers.
The whole concept of voice is arguably even more important if you’re writing a story from first person. In that case, your opening line should introduce your readers to the narrator and the particulars of his or her voice.
“Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo’s child, got on the wrong side of the blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me.”
— Kushiel’s Dart, Jacqueline Carey
Carey infuses her narrator’s voice with a lot of character through her use of slang. We can surmise a great deal about who this woman is and what her circumstance is just by this one sentence, and, more importantly, how she articulates it.
How pronounced of a voice you give your narrator can say a lot about him or her and bring your readers into the story and the setting even more.
2.) Instill a question in the reader’s mind
Another way to put this is “be intriguing.” If your readers aren’t intrigued by the opening line, then there is little reason for them to read on. You want them wondering what sort of world they’ve stepped into and how things are going to play out right off the bat.
There are a lot of different ways to go about this. You can present an action-packed opening or an understated introductory fact, but whatever the case you should be making your readers wonder what is going on. If they are curious, then they will want to keep reading.
“Let me tell you why I wished to buy a meerkat at Quin’s Shanghai Circus.”
— Veniss Underground, Jeff Vandermeer
This line by Vandermeer is a great example of an intriguing opening. It levels so many questions at the reader at once. Why would someone want a meerkat? What is Quin’s Shanghai Circus? Why does the narrator feel the need to tell us this story?
There’s a lot going on here, and it invites investigation.
So how do we accomplish this?
There are several ways to generate the effects I’ve described, but I’ve listed five below that I think are particularly effective. If you’re looking for a way to start your next story, keep these suggestions in mind.
1.) Start Mid-scene
“The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.”
— Blood Rites: A Novel of the Dresden Files, Jim Butcher
This is a simple trick but an effective one. A very easy way to draw the reader in is to start with the action of a scene already in progress. Immediately the reader is disoriented and wants to know what is going on, especially if the scene being described is exciting.
Butcher uses this line to both bring the reader immediately into the action and establish his protagonist’s voice. An easily imaginable scene is set right away, and we learn the protagonist’s relation, or claimed relation, to the events taking place.
2.) Start with a Vivid Image
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
– Neuromancer, William Gibson
This falls more on the establishing voice side of the spectrum, but opening your story with a very vivid image that sets the tone for what’s to come is a really great understated way to draw your readers into the action. If, as a writer, you don’t want to start your story off with an action sequence, I think this is a really great option.
Gibson also breaks the traditional rule of “don’t start a story with the weather” which I think is worth noting. If you have a very strong sentence or passage, I think that overrules any so-called writing conventions.
3.) Establish a Conflict / Action
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
— The Gunslinger, Stephen King
I think this is one of the best opening lines out there. It immediately gives us two characters in conflict. We don’t know exactly what’s going on or who these characters are, but this sentence sets the stage for what’s coming in such a vivid way and mostly through action.
4.) Surprise the Reader
“The morning after he killed Eugene Shapiro, Andre Deschenes woke early.”
– Undertow, Elizabeth Bear
Putting mundane and exciting statements in juxtaposition is a great way to draw your readers into your story. Following the statement of murder with a mundane happening is surprising and intriguing. This element of surprise is a very quick way to put questions into your readers minds.
5.) Create a Frame for the Story
“If I could tell you this in a single sitting, then you might believe all of it, even the strangest part.”
— The Limits of Enchantments, Graham Joyce
Perhaps the most famous story frame is “once upon a time” or the more modern update “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”. The first of these is obviously not very exciting, at least not anymore, but when well constructed, a frame can draw readers into the story by setting the tone and the mood. Even “once upon a time” very clearly tells your readers they are embarking on a fairy tale.
Joyce’s frame construction here is more interesting and immediately raises some questions. For example, why would I be more likely to believe this story if I could hear it in a single sitting? Having a narrator character directly apply this frame, as opposed to the omniscient narrator of the fairy tale, can make it much more colorful and distinct.
These are my favorite techniques for opening a story. Do any of these resonate with you? Or are there ways of writing openings that I missed? Let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll catch you next week.