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?