Once Upon a Time or Story Openings - S1 E2
Today’s topic of discussion is (drum roll please) writing story openings.
They say you don’t a second chance to make a first impression. It is certainly true, for people and… for books. Now, your first thought may be your book’s cover. After all, isn’t that the first encounter a reader has with your book. Well, yes and there is something to judging a book by its cover, but that’s another episode. So, while the look of book may count, to some extent, as a first impression, that’s not what we’re here to talk about.
No, the true first impression your readers experience is precisely that. Reading. It is the opening lines of your story. Yes, there may be a description on the back cover. Yes, there may be reviews praising your work past and present. But for the story you want them to read, in that moment, nothing can make or break you faster than those first few words on page one.
It is a tall order, writing a book, novel, short story. And it is a taller order still to snag the reader with just a handful of words, but it can be done and done well. Here are a few examples of authors who not only accomplish the task, but they make it look easy.
Some contenders for best openings…
First, Douglas Adams in his 1980 novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. “The story so far: in the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
Humorous and short, who doesn’t want to read more after reading that. It makes us laugh, but it also begs so many questions. Who was around to note that the universe has just been made? There appears to have been a lot of them. And why were they angry? Why was it a bad move? In just two sentences, Adams has ensured that his reader will keep on reading. Whether they finish the novel, whether they like the novel, is still uncertain, but the opening, the hook, has done its job. It got the reader interested, but it is up to the plot to maintain that interest.
Let’s look at another fantastic opening that uses a very different approach.
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, 1915. This one, like Adams’ grabs the reader’s attention immediately. After all, it’s not often that a character turns into a giant bug, especially without any context. We have no idea what is going on when the book opens, but we want to know more. In a sense, we are hooked.
Perhaps even more interesting, this opening is actually the plot of the story. The whole plot in one sentence, in the first sentence, and yet it gives up nothing to take away from the reading of the plot. This is an opening truly well done.
But, for every amazing opening, there are, shall we say… less than optimal openings as well. Let’s look a few examples of what not to do. What follows are few openings that are generally considered to be… not great.
The first offender comes from Graham Greene’s A Burn-Out Case. “The cabin-passenger wrote in his diary a parody of Descartes: “I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive,” then sat pen in hand with no more to record.”
Why is this bad, you may ask. Well, let me ask you this in return. Do you want to read more? Does this make you want to read more? You may choose to read on, as I probably would, but that sentence doesn’t inspire excitement to do so.
Here’s another less than stellar start. This one is from Thomas Wolfe in his Look Homeward, Angel. “A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.”
Again, the problem here is lack of immediate interest. What this first line presents is a dusty world indeed. The sentence is dry without the promise of water. A reader may find it later in further sentences, but it is a leap of faith to continue reading.
Tips & Tricks
We’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, but how do you make sure that your opening is a member of the former and escapes the latter? Well, there are some general rules and approaches that guide one to better writing. So, here is what you’ve been waiting for. Here are six strategies to creating a great opening line for your story.
Strategy #1 – Using Universal Truths
Many successful story openings rely on the presentation of universally accepted truths or philosophical assertions. By starting this way, you are presenting a reader with something that is likely familiar to their understanding of the world thereby making a connection between what they already know and what you are about to share with them. Furthermore, this is a chance to present the general theme of your work as your chosen truth likely is or related to your thematic vision.
For example, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina begins with the famous line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What Tolstoy states may not be something we’ve thought of quite in those terms, but he also phrases in a way that doesn’t feel wrong. It also introduces the basic theme of the entire novel. Another well-known example of the universal truth acknowledged opening that reveals the over-arching theme comes from Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice which opens “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
All in all, using universal truths in your opening is a moderately easy way to bring your reader into your story while also teasing the theme and point of your story from page one.
Strategy #2 – Using Factual Statements
A factual opening is precisely what it claims to be. You start your story with some simple statement of fact regarding the scene, setting, or character. For example, a factual opening used to great effect can be seen in Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man whose first line states simply, “I am an invisible Man.” Does he mean this literally? Probably not. Then what does he mean then? How and why does he consider himself to be invisible? This first sentence doesn’t tell you, but the author is making a promise to you to explain it if you only continuing reading. And so, we do. We’re hooked from just five words.
Strategy #3 – Using Mood, Tone, or Setting
Sometimes, the opening lines don’t give us any relevant information at all. Sometimes, the opening lines are just to establish the mood or type of story we are about to read. This approach can be harder to master, but when done well the results can be very effective. Take for example the beginning of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. It opens with “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
From the beginning, quite literally, the reader is firmly placed in that “queer, sultry summer” and that feeling of strangeness continues as we, the readers, wonder as the narrator does, what she was doing in New York. Again, readers want to know as much as the narrator.
Strategy #4 – Using Interesting Oddities
This is type of opening is one of my personal favorites though I admit I am horrible at it. When a story begins with an odd or strange detail, without any context, the reader is hooked from sentence one. When something is odd, it captures our attention, or even better, our curiosity. What I believe is the absolute best example of this type of opening comes from what is possibly my all-time favorite book, 1984 by George Orwell. It begins “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
As you can tell when I read that first line I was immediately hooked. As were many, many other readers considering the books longevity and sustained cultural interest.
Strategy #5 – Using the Character’s Voice
Another great way to start your story is to use your character and your character’s voice to kick things off. For example, J.K. Rowling’s first line in the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone goes like this “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
We may not know much about the story we are getting into yet, but what this first line says about the Dursley’s tell us quite a bit. We know that the Dursleys seem proper, perhaps even, pompous. And we know that they are proud to tell people that they are normal. Which means there are some not normal things or people nearby that they don’t want to be mistaken for. Readers immediately want to know what those abnormal things are, so they keep reading.
Strategy #6 – Starting with Action
Last, but not least there is always the option to simply jump right into the action. No context, no build up, this approach drops readers right into the thick of it. And, as a result, readers are itching to understanding what’s going on. For example, Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream opens with “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
Readers don’t know what’s going on, but it can be safely assumed that being in the dessert when the drugs begin to take hold… well, it doesn’t sound ideal. And we can’t wait to see the results of this drug-induced train wreck.
So, we talked about it. We've explored examples, and we have a handful of tips and tricks at our disposal. Now, let's put our pens where our words are and put what we've learned into practice!
Here is your bi-weekly Wordsmith Challenge!
In no more than two sentences, write an opening line designed to hook your reader. Once you’ve written your opening, you can email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. The best openings will be highlighted in a future episode and one the website!
And if your don't want to share your work, that's okay too. The important thing is that you're writing and trying something new. That's how writing gets better! Even if you hate what you wrote, the practice will pay off.
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