Sam’s Guide to Opening Sentences

Hi, everyone! Today’s topic is an important one for writers: it’s my take on how to handle that all-important first sentence.

The opening line of your story or novel carries a staggering amount of weight. If the importance in hooking your reader decays exponentially with each sentence, the first sentence is the asymptote: the point where hook significance leaps so high that the first officer on a sci-fi show would say readings were “off the scale.”

Or “over 9000!” if you prefer. The point is, it’s a big deal, and everyone has a different way of going about writing a first sentence. I’m not claiming this one is the only correct way–just that it’s mine, and since some people have told me I’m good at this, I hope it can help you with your own writing.

Here’s my method. A perfect opening sentence needs to do two things: introduce the mood of your story, and contain a mystery that invites readers into your story. A good opening sentence needs to do at least one of the two.

I’ll start with mystery, since that’s actually the simpler and less important of the two, though its immediate effect on the reader is more noticeable. To explain this, I like an example that I read somewhere else a while ago–I don’t remember where, but if anybody recognizes this, please let me know so I can credit them.

Anyway, take a look at the following first line:

Thirty minutes before the state championship, Johnny, our starting quarterback, walked into the locker room and announced he had quit the team.

The Johnny example has a major flaw, which I’ll discuss when I get to mood. This is by no means a perfect opener–it’s a teaching tool.

For now, take a moment to think about the amount of information crammed into this one sentence. There’s a quarterback, so we know it’s football, a sport played mostly in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. There’s a state championship, not a bowl game, so it’s probably high school football, an activity most consequential in rural areas of the American Midwest. Since Johnny is the starter, we know that he’s likely been thrust into a lot of adulation and responsibility at a time when he’s still maturing. And don’t overlook that sneaky pronoun “our,” revealing that this story has a first-person narrator.

Density by way of implication is one method you can use to entice your reader. Lots of people like to illustrate this with the famous six-word story–“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”–attributed to Ernest Hemingway, but I prefer Fredric Brown’s entry for the shortest horror story ever written: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room; there was a knock at the door.”

The main focus here, though, is the question: why has Johnny quit the team? We want to read on just to find that out. The fundamental trick of advertising is to convince somebody they have a need they didn’t have previously, and then fill that need. We as writers can hijack that trick for a less evil purpose. Don’t beg the reader to read on past your first sentence–convince them they would be ill-served not to.

Suppose Johnny’s tale is a short story in a cross-genre anthology, and you have no idea what category his motive will fall into. Has Johnny’s doctor diagnosed him with repetitive concussions, setting up a confrontation with his football-loving father? Is a psychopathic fan of the opposing team holding Johnny’s girlfriend hostage? Has Johnny made a pact with a Faerie Queen to trade away his football skills in exchange for a cure to his rare late-onset genetic disease? How will that affect the playoffs?

The most important part of this first component of a perfect opener is that your mystery be original. There are a lot of cliche opening lines that may have been mysterious once, but now just look stale–unless a new twist is placed on them.

For example, one of my pet peeves of amateur fantasy openings is to start in the middle of a chase scene. Inevitably, the character will be some manner of child, they will be exhausted but have to keep running, and whatever is chasing them will not be shown. A similarly common start is to have a more battle-hardened character fighting a bunch of faceless enemies.

This does not make me want to keep reading because I’ve been given no reason to invest myself. Specifically, there’s no mystery here. The author is expecting me to want to know why their protagonist is being chased, but hasn’t given me anything to grab onto. Fortunately, it’s an easy fix: give the runner a mysterious object they must protect with their life despite being obviously unqualified. Or start a few minutes earlier and make it clear their village was doing something offbeat that caused it to be attacked. Or have them investigating an interesting spot in the woods, but get chased, making them unable to finish…

…you get the idea. Simple additions can make this generic opening scene a hundred times more compelling. And the key element is an interesting, unresolved mystery. It doesn’t even have to be the central mystery of your story, either.

For a more complex example: opening with a character waking up is considered the mortal sin of introductions. It’s extremely hard to improve this, since it’s hard to imagine a note of less tension or interest to begin on. Everyone is at their least interesting right after waking up. Plus, even if they wake up in an unfamiliar situation, we know it will take them several boring pages to figure out what’s going on.

It’s best to go the Metamorphosis route: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” That’s a rule. If you must start the story with your character waking up, make sure he’s a cockroach, or something of similar mysterious weight, by the end of that sentence.

Let’s return briefly to Johnny to introduce the other half of my idea of a perfect opening line. His decision in the example to quit the team raises a lot of questions, but there’s one thing it fails to do: give us an idea of what kind of story we’re about to read. Is it going to be a comedy of errors or a family tragedy, a grounded coming-of-age tale or an urban fantasy saga? This is where relying solely on the mystery falls short–it fails to promise anything to the reader, other than that something good will happen if they read on.

This promise will not carry weight with everyone. Therefore, we need to ensure the perfect opener also conveys a sense of mood.

I’m going to start this one with some examples of real opening lines that I love. Several of these are illustrated in this awesome imgur post you should check out.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” –George Orwell, 1984

The idea that clocks can strike thirteen is not all that mysterious to us now, but Orwell’s classic introduction doesn’t hinge on an inviting mystery. Rather, it’s telling us about the world we’ve entered: a dark and bizarre place where everything we’ve come to find comforting and familiar is subverted just enough to be terrifying.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” –Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death.” –Ian Fleming, Goldfinger

Another two examples of openers that are famous because they introduce the world of the story. Note from these that having a “world” does not mean you have built a setting from scratch for a sci-fi or fantasy story, or that you’ve exhaustively researched a bygone setting to write historical fiction. Every story has a world. Austen’s is a claustrophobic nebula of balls and drawing rooms; Fleming’s is a warped take on our own where exotic locales are easily accessible yet filled with danger, and final departure lounges are interesting. You cannot tell a full story without defining the parameters of its world.

Once you’ve defined this, the trick is to illustrate it in the very first sentence. I like to think of opening sentences as an Invocation of the Muse–that first line of an ancient epic poem where the poet would ask for divine aid in telling the story. By doing this, Homer or whoever could immediately signal that he was about to tell a tale so monumentally epic that he literally couldn’t finish it without the intervention of a minor deity.

Then he tells you the ending, and it just makes you want to listen more. That’s how well this works.

No matter what your world, you need a signal just like the invocation to the muse–one that implies, but doesn’t necessarily tell, the whole story. If your novel is about fantastic adventure lurking just behind the confines of the everyday, why not do what J.K. Rowling did in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and start your story by declaring two characters perfectly normal, thus conveying that many things around them probably aren’t? If your story is about the turmoil within a narrator’s head, why not have him spend the very first page reacting with hostility to the reader’s perceived interest, like J.D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye?

This is the deft balancing act that a perfect opening line needs to pull off. If the mystery is a hook to be set, the mood is a line to be reeled in (note: the author knows nothing about fishing).

I try to use this method, but I don’t believe in my own ability to be a perfect example of this opinion. That said, I’d like to share the opening line of Rafter’s Rats, and I hope some of my loyal readers can critique how well I’ve managed to practice what I preach.

In the ninetieth summer of Pale, the year of the Green Fever, two women in veils came to put the mark on my door.

I’ve attempted to meld mood and mystery, so hopefully this line can stand as a mechanical example of the technique, if it’s definitely not a paragon.

Also, just for fun, here are my top five favorite opening lines ever, in no particular order:

1. “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” –C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

2. “This is my favorite book in the world, though I have never read it.” –William Goldman, The Princess Bride

3. “All children, except one, grow up.” –J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy

4. “In my family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” –Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It

5. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” –J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone






3 thoughts on “Sam’s Guide to Opening Sentences

  1. Pingback: Father Knox’s Mystery Commandments | To Find the Colors Again

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