Effective Openings

by Jacob M. Appel

The sentence you are currently reading has the potential to brand itself indelibly upon our cultural consciousness and to alter the course of Western Civilization.

Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But what author doesn’t dream that his opening line will achieve the iconic recognition of “Call me Ishmael” or the staying power of “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth….”? In writing, as in dating and business, initial reactions matter. You don’t get a second chance, as mouthwash commercials often remind us, to make a first impression.

Unfortunately, unlike marketing pitches or pickup lines, opening sentences frequently receive short shrift in writing workshops. While aspiring literati are drilled on the subtleties of characterization and plot, few if any instructors offer entire lessons on crafting a first line, or even an introductory paragraph—although many agents and editors, if they are not impressed after a sentence or two, will read no further.

I started devoting an entire three-hour session of my writing class to the subject of opening lines when I realized that the last formal instruction I ever had on the subject came from my third grade teacher, the inspiring Miss Spillman, who insisted that all short stories begin with “a hook.” Over years of writing, I have come to believe that the fate of most literary endeavors is sealed within the initial paragraph—and the seeds of that triumph or defeat are usually sown by the end of the first sentence. The key to a compelling story lies in launching it in the right direction.

The first cardinal rule of opening lines, in my opinion, is that they should possess most of the individual craft elements that make up the story as a whole. An opening line should have a distinctive voice, a point-of-view, a rudimentary plot and some hint of characterization. By the end of the first paragraph—unless there is a particular reason to withhold this information—we should also know the setting and conflict.

This need not lead to elaborate or complex openings. Simplicity will suffice. For example, the opening sentence of Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” tells the reader:

The grandmother did not want to go to Florida.

Already, we have a distinctive voice—somewhat distant, possibly ironic—which refers to “the” grandmother with a definite article. We have a basic plot: conflict over a journey. And we have a sense of characterization: a stubborn or determined elderly woman. Although we do not know the precise setting, we can certainly rule out Plato’s Athens and Italy under the Borgias and countless others. All of that in six words.

Yet what matters most is that we have direction—that O’Connor’s opening is not static. Immediately, we face a series of potential questions: Why didn’t the grandmother want to go to Florida? Where else, if anywhere, did she wish to go? Who did want to go to Florida? A successful opening line raises multiple questions, but not an infinite number. In other words, it carries momentum.

I like to conceive of the opening as a pebble launched down a mountainside: The stone may jolt back and forth within a limited path, building up force, but the trajectory of its initial release largely determines its subsequent route.

That’s the second cardinal rule of openings: Never forget that the entire course of a story or novel, like an avalanche, is largely defined within its first seconds.

Here are nine other ideas to help you craft perfect opening lines:

1. Don’t start too early.

Many aspiring writers begin their narrative before the action actually starts, such as when a character wakes up to what will eventually be a challenging or dramatic day. However, unless you’re rewriting Sleeping Beauty, waking up itself is rarely challenging or dramatic. Often, such an opening reflects the writer himself building momentum as he figures out his narrative, rather than the story developing momentum of its own. Far better to start at the first moment of large-scale conflict. If the protagonist’s early morning rituals are essential to the story line, or merely just entertaining, they can always be included as flashbacks—or later in the story, when he wakes up for a second time.

2. Small hooks catch more fish than big ones.

In grade school, many aspiring writers are taught that the more unusual or extreme their opening line, the more likely they are to “hook” the reader. This is indeed true. What we are not told in grade school is that such large hooks also have the power to disappoint readers easily, when the subsequent narrative doesn’t live up to them. If, as a writer, you begin at the most dramatic or tense moment in your story, you have no where to go but downhill. Similarly, if your hook is extremely strange or misleading, you may have trouble living up to its odd expectations. As a fishing buddy of mine explains, the trick is to use the smallest hook possible to make a catch—and then to pull like crazy in the opposite direction.

3. Open at a distance and close in.

In modern cinema, films commonly begin with the camera focused close-up on an object and then draw back panoramically, often to revelatory effect, such as when what appears to be a nude form is actually revealed to be a piece of fruit. This technique rarely works in prose. Most readers prefer to be “grounded” in the panorama or context and then to focus in—a technique distinctive of nineteenth century classics such as Middlemarch.

4. Readers don’t read backwards.

One of the easiest pitfalls in starting a story is to begin with an opening line that is confusing upon first reading, but that makes perfect sense once the reader learns additional information later in the story. The problem is that few readers, if confused, will ever make it that far. This is not to say that you can’t include information in your opening that acquires additional meaning once the reader learns more. That technique is often a highly-rewarding tool. However, the opening should make sense on two levels—both with and without any knowledge the reader will acquire later.

5. Start with a minor mystery.

While confusing the reader is a definite no-no, presenting them with a puzzle can be highly effective—particularly if the narrator is also puzzled. This has the instant effect of making both reader and narrator partners-in-crime. Such a puzzle can even encompass an entire novel, as when David Copperfield asks,

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

6. Be wary of opening quotations.

If you feel compelled to begin a story with direct dialogue, keep in mind that you are thrusting the reader directly into a maelstrom and that it is easy to lose them. One technique is to begin with a single line of dialogue and then to draw back and to offer additional context before proceeding with the rest of conversation—a rare instance where starting close-up and then providing a panorama sometimes works. Long sequences of dialogue at the outset of a story, unless the narrative is to be all dialogue like some experimental pieces by Donald Barthelme or Terry Bisson, usually prove difficult to follow.

7. Revisit your opening line.

Sometimes a story evolves so significantly during the writing process that an opening line, no matter how brilliant, no longer applies to the story that follows. The only way to know this is to reconsider the opening sentence, like the title, once the final draft of the remainder of the story is complete. Often a new opening is called for. That does not mean that your brilliant opening needs to be scrapped entirely; instead, it should be “stockpiled” for use in a future project.

8. Make a list of possible opening sentences.

Beginning writers are often told to make a short list of titles and to try them out on friends and family. I urge my students to do the same with opening sentences. An opening sentence, like a title, sometimes seems truly perfect—until you come up with several even better choices.

9. Read as many opening lines as possible.

I urge all of my students to obtain copies of the Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Prize Stories and to go through them, cover to cover, reading only the first sentence of each story. As with any other aspect of writing, openings are their own distinct art form—and exposure to the masterwork of others is one of the best ways to learn. Of course, the challenge of this exercise is to avoid being lured into a story with such a compelling opening sentence that you aren’t able to put it down.

Needless to say, a brilliant opening line cannot salvage a story that lacks other merits, nor will journals publish a story based on the strength of an opening sentence alone. However, in a literary environment where journals and publishing houses receive large quantities of high quality work, a distinctive opening line—even more than a title—can help define a piece in the mind of potential editors.

A riveting opening can even serve as shorthand for an entire story, so that harried editors, sitting around a table as they evaluate the crème de la slush pile, may refer to your piece informally as, “the one that begins with the clocks striking thirteen,” as does Orwell’s 1984. Even after the rest of the story has evaporated from conscious memory, the opening may stick with editors, an iron peg upon which to hang their hats.

My own personal favorite opening, incidentally, is the first line of Elizabeth Graver’s short story, “The Body Shop,” which later appeared in The Best American Short Stories 1991. Her piece begins:

     My mother had me sort the eyes.

Now I dare you not to go out and read the story.

This article originally appeared in Writer’s Digest magazine.