According to Stephen King, the very first sentence is the most important in the entire work. Evidence that he’s right can be found in all the online lists of “favorite” or “best” first lines. You could spend days just going through all the ideas of what the best first lines in fiction are. But as you sift through all those terrific first lines, you will begin to notice a pattern develop: the various quality first lines or openings can be gathered into categories or types.
But before we discuss some of these types, we need to look at why they are so important.
The purpose of writing fiction, whether it’s flash, a short story, novel, or multi-volume epic is to tell a story. But telling a story isn’t really enough, is it? Telling a story is meaningless if no one is willing to read it. This is where the opening of the tale assumes so much importance. The opening is the bait and hook the writer uses to draw in her reader. The opening sentence and the paragraphs that follow need to intrigue a potential reader and make them ask that most important of all questions: “What happens next?”
In the modern world, where we all are under constant bombardment by almost infinite media, work, and entertainment sources, writers for fiction need to find a way to snare a potential readers attention and draw it in as quickly as possible. If not, we risk losing them to television or Youtube videos. In a novel, the writer seldom is given more than four or five pages to secure the reader’s interest; in a short story, that may drop to two or three paragraphs.
So we need to generate strong, enticing fiction openings. That is established. How do we do it?
This post will examine seven different types of fiction openings. Each of the opening types is a technical answer to the question of how to draw your readers in, using different strategies. If done well, each type works perfectly well, though some are more difficult than others and more suited to a particular fiction form.
Without further ado.
“The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking as it seemed from Bramblehurst railway station, and carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand.”
The Invisible Man
Action, by our very nature, attracts our interest quicker than even the most transcendent description. It’s just part of being human. If the action depicted is dramatic or unusual, it is even more powerful because it piques the reader’s natural desire to find out what is happening and why. A mysterious, dramatic action is one of the better methods of hooking a reader’s attention.
Because of the power of a dramatic event, this strategy is particularly useful in shorter forms such as stories and “flash fiction.”
But even longer, more complex works which will allow and require more development than can be handled in a short story, the Action Opening can be used effectively to draw the reader in immediately. The backstory and buildup can then be dealt with in flashbacks later in the work.
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
To Kill A Mockingbird
Character can be nearly as compelling a hook for a prospective reader as action, since nearly all good fiction is populated by characters. The key to make this Character Opening work though is having a compelling main character that will intrigue a prospective reader and depicting that character as quickly as possible.
In shorter fiction, this can be difficult because we don’t have as much space to depict that character, probably only a couple of paragraphs. It can—and has—been done, but it is definitely a challenge.
‘“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.’
This type shares much of the same characteristics as the Action Opening. Like the Action Opening, Dialogue presents the reader with something already happening. Dialogue is also much more compelling than pure description because it is active and presents the reader a window into something already happening, something they have to figure out.
Also like the Action Opening, the Dialogue opening is particularly useful in the shorter forms like short stories and flash fiction. This is largely because dialogue—done well—can also depict characterization and conflict in a minimum number of words.
“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”
This opening is a combination of the Dialogue and Character Openings. The reader is brought into the interior monologue of the primary character and drawn in by the conflict depicted there. As in the example given, the conflict (finding a ride) is already apparent as well as the character (probably a young woman because of the infatuation with the actor Paul Newman).
This opening also lends itself to the shorter forms of fiction.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Pride and Prejudice
Depending on the nature and complexity of the statement, this opening may be harder to pull off in the shorter forms. It can be done (see Kafka’s Metamorphosis) but it can be harder. It has the advantage of letting the reader know right up front what the work is going to be about, but it also delivers the unspoken promise that I, the writer, will give the topic due consideration.
Somewhat easier to do in longer forms.
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of Western Spiral arm of the galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Setting is kind of a traditional way of starting a novel. Think of Dickens, or Henry James, or a half-dozen other novelists from the mid-1800’s to the 1920’s who seem to spend pages describing the landscape or the furnishings of a character’s house. Today’s readers, however, have less patience (or attention spans) and usually won’t bother plowing through that much description.
The trouble with description is that it’s static. The river, in dramatic terms, doesn’t do anything; it’s just present. Modern readers want something to happen. If they can’t find it in your work, they’ll find it in someone else’s.
That isn’t to say the Setting Opening should never be used. If the setting is basically a character in your story, it often helps to begin with acquainting the reader with the setting. Ken Kesey did it in Sometimes a Great Notion, beginning the novel with an italicized description of the river the Stamper family would spend generations battling. The example from Douglas Adams also works quite well because it both establishes the science fiction/fantasy aspect of his story and the fact that his tale was going to be less than serious, maybe even irreverent.
It is much easier to use the Setting Opening in a longer form such as a novel or novella, just because of the amount of time you can devote to the description. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be used in shorter fiction, just that it will be much more difficult.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
This opening is mostly used in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction, where the world in which the story takes place is radically different from the world the reader is familiar with. As in Mr. Tolkien’s classic high fantasy, he needs to acquaint the reader with the new world they are entering and do it as quickly as possible. It is a heavy load to lift. A lot of information must be transmitted as quickly and with as little effort as possible. It isn’t easy, but can be done.
Because of the amount of information needing to be conveyed, this opening is easier to do in a larger work, but can be done in a shorter form. For instance, were you writing a short story about a hobbit that takes place entirely in the Shire, you would not need to mention the Misty Mountains or Mordor. Unless it directly affects the story, it should not appear at all.
Of course, these days you wouldn’t have to mention anything other than your character was a hobbit in the Shire and most people would have all the information they need. But you see the point I’m trying to make.
So which opening do you select for your new story? It depends. What are you trying to do? What are you most comfortable with? As the author, no one but you can truly make this decision. Others can make suggestions about what works well and what doesn’t, but the ultimate decision always resides with the author.
Use the opening you think works best for your story.