The Perfect Opening Line


Starting off right.  It’s important in sports, jobs and interviews, school, relationships, and all sorts of other things.  Unsurprisingly, it’s also important in writing (and every other kind of storytelling).  Sure there are amazing books with opening lines that are yawn-worthy, and sure there are amazing opening lines that lead you into 300 pages of the worst story ever.  But I doubt anybody is planning on writing the worst story ever, so why not start your story off in the best way possible?

My most recent short story, The Man in the Black BMW, begins like this:

“Bernard was old and even though he hated the idea of death, it was always on his mind.”

Is this the best opening line ever written?  No.  Does it sound a little too dramatic?  Yes, probably.  But it fits the plot and theme of the story, and it does several things that I like.

1.  It creates intrigue.  Why was death always on Bernard’s mind?  It it just because he’s old?  Maybe, but probably not – why would the author give me this information if it doesn’t have something specifically to do with the story?

2.  Creates inner conflict.  Bernard doesn’t like thinking about death, but he can’t stop.  His thoughts and his desires are in conflict with one another.  Subconsciously, we want to read on to see if he resolves this conflict.

3.  It’s not a sprawling mess.  One sentence, one comma, and the line is over.

4.  Immediately introduces the protagonist.  This one isn’t necessary in all opening lines, but I like it for this story.  Right away we get the protagonist, his name, and little bit of information about him (he’s old).  It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to ground us.

There are two main things I think about when it comes to generalizing rules for opening lines.

Create intrigue and questions for the reader.  It should raise a question, any question.  This can be done in a million ways, but it still has to be there.

Be easy to read.  Sprawling sentences with six commas are usually something to avoid.

“All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).  What happened?  Did it really happen?

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” – C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952).  Who the hell is Eustace?  What did he almost deserve?  Why almost?

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”  – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925).  What was the advice?  It was given a long time ago, why is it important now?

If it’s easy to read and raises questions and intrigue in the reader, I’m in.  It’s your opening line’s job to get the reader to read the second line.  If it’s a good one, it might even get them to read the first page.

Sure you can get away with a normal line, but don’t you want your opening line to be great.  Don’t you want it to give a reader chills, to remind them of the journey you just took them through when they look back at where it all began?

What about you?  How do you create your opening lines?  What do you look for when reading or writing them?


16 comments on “The Perfect Opening Line”

  1. I always start my stories in media res – right in the middle of something. I choose the scenario I want to start in, and then I think real hard about the most interesting moment of that scenario. Then I write a sentence that fits it. 🙂

  2. My favourite – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Now that raises loads of questions I want answered. Thanks for the post.

  3. Great post! I absolutely agree. Sometimes even just the first line can hook a reader, or make them put it down. For me, I like to keep mine short and sweet, but creating that intrigue and drawing them in is the most important thing. I like your first line 🙂

  4. I don’t worry about my opening lines too much. I let the story lead itself whenever possible so it feels more natural. If I interfere too much I end up with something contrived or I never actually get started. Some opening lines can be magic, but the ones I prefer most are the ones that are so subtle that they’ve led me into the story without me even being aware that I’ve been hooked.

  5. Opening line is the hardest part especially the one in magazine. Enjoying your posts man.

  6. I often find that I really…really….really stress over opening lines because I know that it is THAT line that will pull a reader in. I cannot count how many books I have picked up, read the first line and had to continue because I wanted to know what that line was talking about. It’s a powerful tool, the opening line. Almost as powerful as the ending line that has to neatly wrap the world up with a happy little bow.

    Most times, I like to set a scene with my opening line. Something like the first brush stroke on a canvas. I want it to be tangible; something a reader can read and immediately fall into the world of the story.

    Unfortunately…this sometimes means I lack something powerful enough to create intrigue or, in order to add the intrigue, I get a “sprawling mess”.

    So this is a really helpful post for me. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for the comment. And yes, it’s really important to pull readers into your story, especially if you’re writing fantasy or fiction with an important setting! (One of my favorite topics in books on the craft of writing is ‘Setting as a Character.’). You’re right about the last line too, although sometimes I think it’s great if you wrap the world up in a sad little bow, or a scary one, or one that forces the reader to think and wonder. It all depends on the story. Maybe I’ll try a post about closing lines! “End with an image and don’t explain.” – Stanley Kunitz. Great advice, for some stories, if you ask me.

  7. Just checking out some of your old posts since you liked one of mine– I like this one in particular. The first line of my latest scribble, ‘Troped’, reads: ‘ “Can’t we read something good, Cheviot?” ‘
    I liked it because the book has its head stuck through a gap in the 4th wall, so the characters know they’re characters, and soon enough will be complaining about how unoriginal the book they’re in is.

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