Start your stories well: 11 Opening Tips

OpenDoorSkyYou sigh. Hum. Rub your temples. Tap your keyboard. Look around for the umpteenth time.

You have a great idea for your book (or short story, or article) but you’re staring at the computer, stuck on how to begin.

Of course you know the opening is everything. It’s the magnet, the door, the time machine. First lines set the tone, establish the voice. And, in a moment, they shout “wow” … or BORING!

So, how do you reel your readers in? Turn to one of these 11 techniques.

1. Open with a main character’s voice as narrator. (This immediately engages readers because the narrator is talking directly to us and letting us into his/her world.)

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” –The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” –Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson

“Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature.” –The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein

“I wish Giovanni would kiss me.”  –Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert

2. Begin with dialogue. (Readers like “hearing” characters speak, and this technique quickly introduces one or more voices in a scene.)

“‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” –Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

“‘Yes,’ said Tom bluntly, on opening the front door. ‘What d’you want?’ A harassed middle-aged woman in a green coat and felt hat stood on his step.” –Goodnight Mr. Tom, Michelle Magorian

“‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” –Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

 

3. Start with action. (It makes us wonder what will happen.)

“On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother Thomas entered the Three Rivers, Connecticut Public Library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was about to commit would be deemed acceptable.” –I Know This Much Is True, Wally Lamb

“The man in Black fled across the Desert, and the Gunslinger followed.” –The Gunslinger, Stephen King

“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”  –The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

4. Open with a famous quote, iconic lyrics or well-known phrase. (Familiar words form an automatic connection.)

“‘What is to give light must endure burning,’–Viktor Frankl,” –Opening quote in Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, Larry Dossey

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” –Back When We Were Grownups, Anne Tyler

Once upon a time there was a pair of pants.” –The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Ann Brasiers

5. Set a sensory scene. (Readers are drawn in when they can see, hear, smell, touch or taste a scene.)

“The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods.” —Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis

“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.”The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane

“Air-conditioned, odorless, illuminated by buzzing fluorescent tubes, the American market doesn’t present itself as having very much to do with Nature.” –The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan

6. Use sound words.  (“Crash.”  “Buzz.”  “Clink.”  “ARRRRRGH!!!!” >sigh< –– these quick, quirky universal sounds can sometimes work without being gimmicky. )

“KER-POW! I was knocked into the present, the unmistakeable now, by Joni Friedman’s head as it collided with the right side of my jaw.” –Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy

“Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff. Ding-dong, ding-dong.” –The LIttle Engine That Could, Watty Piper

7. Start with an intriguing question or questions. (Naturally we want the answer.)

“Where now? Who now? When now?” —The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett

“Who am I? And how, I wonder, will this story end?” –The Notebook, Nicholas Sparks

“‘What’s it going to be then, eh?'” –A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

8. Use a striking or metaphorical definition. (Cleverness makes us think, and want more.)

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”  —The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley

“Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.” —Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood

11. Begin with a startling statement or statistic. (A good dramatic teaser is a sure-fire draw.)

“They shoot the white girl first.” —Paradise, Toni Morrison

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” —The Crow Road, Iain M. Banks

“Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty.” –The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Avi

10. Talk to the reader. (Popular in the early- to mid-1900’s, this technique is making a successful come-back.)

“Once upon a time there lived… ‘A king!’ my little readers will say immediately. No, children, you are mistaken. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood.” Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.” –A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler

“If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.”Choke, Chuck Palahniuk.

10.  Flash back or forward to draw readers in. (Flash-backs and flash-forwards automatically evoke curiosity about what came before or after.)

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” —One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

“At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.” –The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” –The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold

OpenDoorVortex

 

What are your favorite first lines?

 

 

(For more examples of opening lines, see American Book Review and Stylist.)

 

 

 

 

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