Opening Lines

Posted by on September 16, 2011 in On Writing | Comments Off on Opening Lines

I want the first line of your story to be the realization that you’ve just stepped between a grizzly bear and her cub.
The opening line of a story is the adventurous spring-board of creation or a dull ol’ coffin-nail. Stories precariously hang in the balance between that first capital letter and the final bit of punctuation. These lines, irksome and magical, come in all shapes and sizes and are the difference between the first chisel strike that will produce David or split the slab of marble in half.
Successful stories grab hold of a reader at the very beginning and don’t let go. Unsuccessful stories are those that fall prey to the fatal temptation of starting off slow and hiding the interesting parts under pages of why-am-I-reading-this text. A bad opening line is usually indicative of an author hiding from their story. Tension is not created by reading five boring pages of a six-page short story to then find out on the sixth page that the narrator is a ghost or the killer or a paraplegic. If something in your story stinks I want to catch a whiff of it in the first paragraph.
Even if your story doesn’t start with the stench of corpses, tone and the unexpected go a long way. It might lack the intensity of the grizzly bear or a hyena lock-jawing on your throat. The unexpected does a lot toward hooking your reader in for the long haul.
Some of my favorites:


“It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury


“It was the fashion in cruelty to crucify not only men and women, but children and their small pets in the season which I first met the Devil.” Von Bek by Michael Moorcock


“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson


“His two girls are curled together like animals whose habit is to sleep underground, in the smallest space possible.” Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver


“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides


“Marley was dead: to begin with.”A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens


“It was a nice day.” Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett


So, what can we do to produce amazing openings? My advice is to announce the point of your work like a chorus of trumpets welcoming back your king from his latest campaign. But. Keep it simple. Get straight to the point–give your reader a nibble and then let the appetite grow. If the action of your story is going to take a long time to grow then start in the middle and explain the back-story on your way to the ending. If a pithy line that sets the tone and pace for your story is out of reach consider starting with interesting dialog from your characters. And, if all else fails just start with, “Damn it!” 


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