Sometimes, the hardest part of writing a story is crafting opening lines. The way you begin your story, whether it’s a short story, novella, or novel determines whether the reader will take your literary hand and follow you deeper into the web of your imagination or shake off your grip like it’s covered in cooties from 7th grade study hall. Good authors know how to draw a reader in; great authors spend time doing just that with the very first sentences of their stories.
First lines are specific to your story, your genre, and your style. That being said, there are guidelines that can help you craft a blockbuster of a line for your next literary creation. But first, a warning: Don’t get too wrapped up in details. You’re a writer, a creative, a wizard with words. Examine the rules, yes, but follow your gut. Getting too bogged down in the “do’s” and “dont’s” of writing can put a kink in your creative flow and have you frozen, pen just above paper, waiting for some universal nod to proceed. Don’t overthink. That’s rule one. Now, here are three more guidelines to set you on a path to hooking readers and reeling them in with your next story. These happen to be my favorites; there are plenty of other ways to write great opening lines.
Sometimes easy does it. You’ve heard of the KISS principle? Keep It Simple, Stupid? These opening lines will whack you upside the head with brutal simplicity, albeit in a good way. Take this well-known literary example:
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
One of my favorite stories, Fahrenheit 451 shows us a grim future where people are kept manageable through lack of knowledge. In this dystopian imagining, a fireman is a person whose only job is to burn books to deny the population the knowledge contained within. Of course, you don’t know this when you read that sentence.
That first line is uttered by Fireman Guy Montag. Although the sentence has only six words, they’re strung together in a way that can’t help but capture your attention. Is the speaker literally taking pleasure in being burnt? You’d have to read on to find out!
This kind of opener plunges your reader headlong into the action. The trick with these kind of opening lines is to suck readers in so fast they’re hooked before they know it. A great example was crafted by contemporary author Donna Tartt, in The Secret History. She writes:
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
Oh my. Bunny is dead. The narrator must have something to do with it, too, as he bemoans the gravity of the situation. Why would it have taken him weeks after a death to determine there was a problem? Must. Keep. Reading! The author has cleverly exposed the premise of her story, which centers on a murder, while providing just enough question to keep readers engaged.
Literal writers might find themselves drawn to opening lines that create a mood. Some are long, like Charles Dickens’ offering in A Tale of Two Cities:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Some are short and sweet, like George Orwell’s opener for 1984:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
The mood set by Dickens is of confusion and wonderment. It permeates the novel and gives the reader a good idea of what they’re in for. Orwell’s line lulls us with a simple description of a spring day, then slaps us with the jarring bit of information about the clocks’ unusual timekeeping. Again, he keeps this kind of reality/unreality juxtapositioning going throughout the story, making his first line a great sample of what’s to come.
I couldn’t help but include a the opening line from my upcoming novel, Salt in the Blood, since it fits this category:
“It was an airless, peculiar night when the shadows first arrived at Harrow House.”
I intended to set an ominous tone for the reader and pique their interest with the mention of the shadows. Did it work? Are you intrigued?
Use one of these formulae for your next story and see what you come up with. Remember, don’t try too hard to fit your first line into a template; these are guidelines. Let your creativity loose and see what you can dream up!
See you on the next page!