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. OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But what author doesn’t dream of crafting an opening line that 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.
This post is by Jacob M. Appel. Appel is a physician, attorney and bioethicist based in New York City. He is the author of more than two hundred published short stories and is a past winner of the Boston Review Short Fiction Competition, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for the Short Story, the Dana Award, the Arts & Letters Prize for Fiction, the North American Review’s Kurt Vonnegut Prize, and more. Visit him at jacobmappel.com.
So it’s unfortunate that opening sentences frequently receive short shrift in writing workshops. While drilling aspiring literati on the subtleties of characterization and plot, few, if any, writing instructors offer lessons on crafting a first line, or even an introductory paragraph—though many agents and editors, if not impressed after a sentence or two, will read no further. I started devoting an entire session of my writing class to opening lines when I realized that the last formal instruction I’d had on the subject was the grade school admonition that stories should begin with “a hook.” In the years since, I’ve come to believe that the fate of most literary endeavors is sealed within the initial paragraph—and that the seeds of that triumph or defeat are usually sown by the end of the very first sentence.
Think of every opening line you write as a pebble tossed 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. Never forget that the entire course of a story or novel, like an avalanche, is largely defined within its first seconds. To craft a compelling story, you must first launch it in the right direction.
Here are 10 ways to do it.
1. Build momentum.
The first cardinal rule of opening lines 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, we should also know the setting and conflict, unless there is a particular reason to withhold this information.
This need not lead to elaborate or complex openings. Simplicity will suffice. For example, the opening sentence of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” tells the reader: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.” Already, we have a distinctive voice—somewhat distant, possibly ironic—referring 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 rule out Plato’s Athens, Italy under the Borgias and countless others. All of that in eight 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.
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2. Resist the urge to start too early.
You might be tempted to begin your narrative before the action actually starts, such as when a character wakes up to what will eventually be a challenging or dramatic day. But unless you’re rewriting Sleeping Beauty, waking up is rarely challenging or dramatic. Often, when we start this way, it’s because we’re struggling to write our way into the narrative, rather than letting the story develop momentum of its own. Far better to begin at the first moment of large-scale conflict. If the protagonist’s early-morning rituals are essential to the story line, or merely entertaining, they can always be included in backstory or flashbacks—or later, when he wakes up for a second time.
3. Remember that small hooks catch more fish than big ones.
Many writers are taught that the more unusual or extreme their opening line, the more likely they are to “hook” the reader. But what we’re not taught is that such large hooks also have the power to easily disappoint readers if the subsequent narrative doesn’t measure up. If you begin writing at the most dramatic or tense moment in your story, you have nowhere to go but downhill. Similarly, if your hook is extremely strange or misleading, you might 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.
4. 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 context and then to focus in. Open your story accordingly.
5. Avoid getting ahead of your reader.
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. But the opening should make sense on both levels—with and without knowledge the reader will acquire later.
6. Start with a minor mystery.
While you don’t want to confuse your readers, presenting them with a puzzle can be highly effective—particularly if the narrator is also puzzled. This has the instant effect of making the reader and narrator partners in crime. An unanswered question 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.”
7. Keep talk to a minimum.
If you feel compelled to begin a story with dialogue, keep in mind that you’re thrusting your readers directly into a maelstrom in which it’s easy to lose them. One possible way around this 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 the conversation—a rare instance in which starting close up and then providing a panorama sometimes works. But long sequences of dialogue at the outset of a story usually prove difficult to follow.
8. Be mindful of what works.
Once you’ve given some concentrated thought to your own opening line, obtain copies of anthologies like The Best American Short Stories and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories and read 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 that you aren’t able to put it down!)
9. When in doubt, test several options.
Writers are often advised to make a short list of titles and try them out on friends and family. Try doing the same with opening sentences. An opening line, like a title, sometimes seems truly perfect—until you come up with several even better choices.
10. Revisit the beginning once you reach the end.
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 story is complete. Often a new opening is called for. That doesn’t mean your first opening needs to be scrapped entirely; instead, file it away for use in a future project.
Needless to say, a brilliant opening line cannot salvage a story that lacks other merits, nor will your story be accepted for publication based on the opening alone. But in a literary environment where journals and publishing houses receive large quantities of submissions, a distinctive opening line can help define a piece. 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 not by its title, but as “the one that begins with the clocks striking 13” (as does George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). 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—and, with any luck, it will have that effect on readers, too.
My own personal favorite opening is the first line of Elizabeth Graver’s story “The Body Shop,” which appears in The Best American Short Stories 1991. It begins: “My mother had me sort the eyes.” I dare you not to go out and read what comes next.