Monday, October 1, 2012

Opening Lines

We can never get enough of great openings to stories. If the opening lines grab us and pull us in, we can't wait to read more. We're hooked, and it's the author's game to win or lose from that point on, because we want to see what else she has to say.

James Scott Bell had this to say (as mentioned in an earlier post): "If you want to sell your fiction, you must grab the emotions of the reader [in your opening sentences] by putting a character in some kind of discomfort or danger or the possibility thereof . . . Anything that is a disturbance, or potential disturbance, to their ordinary world."

Poet and writing teacher Priscilla Long devotes a whole chapter to openings in her book on writing, A Writer's Portable Mentor. She starts by quoting contemporary novelist John Irving: 

"When in doubt, or whenever possible, tell the whole story of the novel in the first sentence."

Priscilla Long: A great opening works like a Baked Alaska: the server lights a match and it bursts into flame. It's mesmerizing, and when the flame dies down, you are ready to eat. (p. 165)

Open with the most important thing you have to say. Spend your capital—fast. Open with a quick, well-placed whack:  

  • "I steal." (Mona Simpson, "Lawns")

Other types of impactful openings that Long discusses (pp.166-171):

Often a good opening consists of a small sentence that concentrates into its short little self the essence (sometimes the central dramatic conflict) of what follows: 
  • "Their plans were to develop the valley, and my plans were to stop them." (Rick Bass, "Days of Heaven," 15)

Begin with an aphorism. An aphorism is a pithy truth that the rest of the piece then proceeds to prove out or defend. Or begin with your conclusion.
  • "Death is ordinary." (William T. Vollman, "Three Meditations on Death," 7)

What is the central question of the piece? Ask the question in the first sentence. (This applies more easily to short stories or essays than to novels, I think, but it can certainly be used in novels.)
  • "What is patriotism?" (Emma Goldman, "Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty," 270)

Immediately establish your own or the protagonist's connection to the subject matter at hand.
  • "I stand here ironing and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron." (Tillie Olson, I Stand Here Ironing, 9)

Begin with a telling anecdote or quote. . . remember that the reader must be completely oriented as to what the (essay) is about by the end of the second paragraph, at latest. (Long's example is from an essay, but this can work in a novel, too)
  • Somebody said recently to an old black lady from Mississippi whose legs had been badly mangled by local police who arrested her for "disturbing the peace," that the Civil Rights Movement was dead, and asked, since it was dead, what she thought about it. the old lady replied, hobbling out of his presence on her cane, that the Civil Rights Movement was like herself, "if it's dead it shore ain't ready to lay down."  (I might stop here if this were the opening to a novel I was writing. But in Long's example, the essay needs to establish the full meaning by the end of the next paragraph:   This old lady is a legendary freedom fighter in her small town in the Delta. She has been severely mistreated for insisting on her rights as an American citizen. She has been beaten for singing Movement songs, placed in solitary confinement in prisons for talking about freedom, and placed on bread and water for praying aloud to God for her jailers' deliverance. For such a woman the Civil Rights Movement will never be over as long as her skin is black. It also will never be over for twenty million others with the same "affliction," for whom the movement can never "lay down," no matter how it is killed by the press and made dead and buried by the white American public. (Alice Walker,  "The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?," 170)

Rely on the reliable: What? When? Where? Why? Who? . . .
  • On the twenty-ninth of July in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century. (James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son," 587)

Begin with a good title. A good title says what the piece is about: . . .
  • The Kitchen (Alfred Kazan)
  • Nana (Amiri Baraka)
  • What Is Eros?" (Rollo May)
  • The Education of a Poet (Muriel Rukeyser)

What is your favorite way to open a story that you're writing? Do you have a favorite opening line from your own or others' writing?


  1. Linda, these are great. I used to think of title names. Now I think of first lines.

    What I try to do is orientate the reader to who and where they are. This is helpful when you have many POV Characters. Then they know whose head and the location. I go from there. I'm really going to work on first lines on this novel.

    Are the last lines as important to keep the reader reading?

    1. I'm thinking that strategy is excellent, Karlene. Once the first draft is done, go through all the first lines. And those last lines . . . good point! Remember Bob Dugoni's talk at PNWA last year about that? Yes, very important.

    2. I do remember. And, it can be so much fun.

  2. Oh those opening lines! I love how they reel you in. Excellent post, thank you Linda!

  3. Bell is one of the best, isn't he, Lydia?