Few facets of writing are as important as an opening line. While every story needs well-drawn characters and an engaging plot, nothing will deter a reader faster than a lousy first sentence—particularly in short fiction. Thus, your job as a storyteller is to hook the audience at the beginning of your tale and give them a reason to keep reading. There are a number of ways to do this, and since imitation is one of the best ways to learn, here a few examples to consider.
Short and Simple
Some writers begin their narratives with simple, declarative sentences. For example, Tolkien plunges us into the world of the Shire and Middle Earth with the line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Likewise, Virginia Woolfe’s opening, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” displays both her protagonist’s commanding personality as well as the author’s own self-assured style.
Here are some other declarative openers that carry plenty of punch:
“The small boys came early to the hanging.” (Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth)
“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” (Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It)
“I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. One and only one.” (Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men)
“It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.” (Joseph Heller’s Catch 22)
Conjuring Up Questions
A short declaration sometimes has the effect of plunging the reader right into the center of the action, such as in Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat: “None of them knew the color of the sky.” Or consider Ernest Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber: “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.” Both of these openings encourage readers to ask questions, and it is these sorts of questions that will coax the audience into joining the author on the narrative journey.
Here’s another opening line that begs all sorts of questions: “When my nose finally stops bleeding and I’ve disposed of the bloody paper towels, Teddy Barnes insists on driving me home in his ancient Honda Civic, a car that refuses to die and that Teddy, cheap as he is, refuses to trade in” (from Richard Russo’s Straight Man). What caused the narrator’s bloody nose, and why is Teddy such a cheapskate? It’s another twenty pages before these questions are answered, but by then, Russo has the audience firmly hooked.
Sometimes an author will begin a story with a sweeping comment about the human condition, such as in Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.”
Other writers, such as John Irving, will essentially sum up their entire story in an opening line: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany” (from Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany). It took Irving several drafts to get this one right, but the statement conjures up a host of questions that are not answered until the book’s final pages.
Consider using your opening passage to establish your speaker’s voice, such as these two narrative gems:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye)
Listening to these two openers conjures up vivid notions about who is telling the stories—which is precisely what a good narrative should do.
What Not to Do
Here’s a real yawner of an opening line from William Paul Young’s bestselling novel The Shack:
“March unleashed a torrent of rainfall after an abnormally dry winter. A cold front out of Canada then descended and was held in place by a swirling wind that roared down the Gorge from eastern Oregon.”
Are you kidding me? A weather report? Wake me when it’s over. (Believe it or not, this book has sold over three million copies. But then literary quality is not always a prerequisite for commercial success. Look at Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer.) Now there’s nothing wrong with beginning a story in the throes of a howling snowstorm, but writing something that sounds like a script from the Weather Channel’s teleprompter is probably not the best way to go.
The bottom line is this: If you want people to read your story, it’s important to capture the audience’s attention from the opening line. Put the reader in the middle of the action, or provide them some questions or ideas to ponder. Quality screenwriters know this rule well, and if you’re writing a short story or a novel, the same principle applies.
So, I’ve shown you a few of my favorite opening passages. What are some of yours?