That Pesky Opening Line
When I started writing my weekly Writing Tips posts last year, I posted a piece called Five Ways To Start Your Story. While it does still read as nearly 2,000 words of me crying about how much I loved the new Power Rangers movie (for nostalgia reasons, among other things, and now as I write THIS post, Hasbro has announced that more Power Rangers movies will be in the works in the near future, so I’m basically freaking out about it all over again), I also talked about the types of scenes writers can use to start off their stories on the right foot, as a way to really draw your readers in and make them want to keep turning the page. More on that here.
That’s the macro piece.
Welcome to the micro edition!
Recently, and I don’t even know how it came up, I started thinking about a conversation I had on Facebook in 2009 with two of my closest friends from high school. Back in the 2000s, one of the most popular things for people to do with their Facebooks was “vague book”, also known as posting vague Facebook statuses, with the goal (whether conscious or subconscious) to encourage people to ask what’s going on with you. (I got to college and was harassed so much by my roommates—let’s just say it was in a nice way—and that broke me of the habit. But that is neither here nor there).
This conversation started when my friend M changed her profile picture (to something I can’t even remember, though it was definitely not a picture of her face). And then she added a status that said, “No, my profile picture isn’t random, there’s a story behind it.”
I chimed in with, “If you insist.” And our friend J added, “Whatever you say, M.”
And then I added the comment that would start off a three-hour back-and-forth-and-back again volley of some of the most well-known (and some not so well-known) opening lines from some of the most popular books and movie and television shows when I said: “Okay, I’ll get you started…Once upon a time…”
Why not start off with a classic, am I right?
Throughout the hours-long conversation, lines we tossed in included:
“…in a galaxy far, far away…” (can’t go wrong with Star Wars)
“It was a dark and stormy night…” (another oldie, but goodie)
“The Cylons were created by man. They rebelled. They evolved. They look…human. There are many copies. And they have a plan…” (Like I was going to miss out on bringing up BSG, even if, as it turns out, the Cylons DIDN’T actually have a plan ¯_(ツ)_/¯)
“Hey, I’m just trying to live my life as a regular kid, but people still think of me as THE FAMOUS JETT JACKSON.” (Best show ever, or best show ever? Don’t even get me started on how the TV movie inspired one of the very first novels I wrote back in college)
“LIVE FROM NEW YORK, IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT!!!”
“Here it comes! From the Bob Barker Studio at CBS in Hollywood, it’s The Price is Right!”
“Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. It’s continuing mission: to explore strange, new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.” (Did you know that you can be both a Trekkie AND a Star Wars fan? What a world.)
“Here’s a story of a lovely lady who was bringing up three very lovely girls. All of them had hair of gold, like their mother, the youngest one in curls…”
“Are ya ready kids? Aye, Aye captain! I can’t heeeaaar yooouuu! AYE, AYE CAPTAIN! oooooooooooo………Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?”
“Now this is a story all about how my life got twisted upside down and I’d like to take a minute so just sit right there, I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel Air.”
“EARTH!” “FIRE!” “WIND!” “WATER!” “HEART!” “Go Planet!” “By your powers combined, I am Captain Planet!”
The moral of the story is that when I was thinking about this conversation, it led me to think about how J, M and I volleyed opening lines for stories and movies and shows at the drop of a hat. We didn’t have to think about it, we just typed what came to mind off the tops of our heads. All the lines, the ones above and the ones from the rest of the conversation, were lines that stuck with us for one reason or another.
Some are catching jingles, some are lines from literary classics, and some are from shows with cult-like followings that we watched over and over and over, and when you do something like that, a show’s opening title cards are really going to stick with you, no matter how hard you try to knock them from your mind. I can hear the Battlestar Galactica intro score in my head as I type this post.
As for your novel, your goal (other than finishing it) is to craft an opening line that sticks, one that resonates with your readers and one that will stand out, one that will potentially end up being tattooed to the bodies of your biggest fans (that’s always the dream, isn’t it?)
So, click the Continue Reading button to read the nine tips and tricks to craft the best opening sentence for your story.
1 Write The Opening Scene, Then Cut Out The First Paragraphs
Something that many writers do as they draft is they….take a little while to really get to the point of the scene. If you’re a writer who does that, don’t fret. It’s perfectly normal to take time to get to the point of the story. Many literary agents talk about how the story doesn’t really start until the third chapter of many manuscripts they receive.
I’ve said it before, but for those of you who haven’t been around the Writing Tips posts for a while, I’ll say it again: it doesn’t matter, as long as you get something written.
For one, there’s a change that what you settle on as the opening line doesn’t end up being the opening line of the final draft, or even in the final draft at all.
The important thing is that you start writing the scene you have in mind for the beginning of your story. Get it on paper, because once you do that, it’s much, much easier to pick out where the scene really begins. It’s very likely NOT the first line you put down.
It could be something as simple as cutting out the first sentence and opening the scene with the second. Or maybe you decided to cut out the first page of the scene. Maybe there’s a line halfway through the scene that could be moved to the begging and would work out even better to kick things off.
What starts off as the beginning of your story doesn’t have to stay as your beginning. What you write is the stepping stone to the true beginning of your story.
2 Think of What Your Character Would Say or Think
One of the things you’ll do when you’re working on your story is that you’re really going to get into the head of your main character or characters. You’re going to be writing them so much that they’re going to become a part of you. That’s just how it happens.
To translate that to your story’s opening scene, think about what they would say when faced with whatever scene you dreamed up for the opening of your book. Are they surprised? Resigned? Bored? Entertained? Maybe or maybe not halfway to dying?
Think about how your character would react to that situation and write it out. Find your opening line there and make sure it’s something that’ll give your story the punch it needs to keep your readers turning to the next page and the next until they’re clamoring all over social media for the sequel. Sure you can think about what your character does when they wake up in the morning, but take it a step further and try to turn the cliché on its head. Don’t do what people think you’re going to do with your character.
Think about their mindset at the beginning of the book. What’s their headspace like before you throw everything you’re going to throw at them? Try out a sentence, try two sentences, try five sentences. It might not work the first time, but that’s okay. All writing is about trial and error. You’ll find something that works as long as you keep at it.
3 Finish Your Story First
There’s no rule that says your first line has to be written at the beginning of your first draft. Maybe the scene you initially wrote to start things off doesn’t fit by the time you get to the end, or maybe you’re halfway through and you know the beginning of the story n needs to change, or maybe you don’t even start writing your story at the beginning?
Who writes linearly anyway? Anyone?
Well, if you do, how the heck do you do it? I couldn’t if I tried, and I have definitely tried a time or two before. Leave a comment and teach me your ways, or join the Facebook group and tell me there.
Back to the point, sometimes it takes seeing the entire scope of your story to figure out just what needs to happen at the beginning and what the first line needs to have so it has the right amount of punch that you want.
Maybe you’re going to take something from the middle of the story and move it to the beginning. Maybe there’s a line floating somewhere in the beginning of the third act that just screams, “Start your story with these five words.” Maybe it’s the description of a location that, now that you’ve written the story, you realized that you need to include, and therefore need to go back and edit the beginning of the story to find its right place.
4 Keep It Short
And keep it simple. You don’t want to overwhelm your readers with too much information all at once. It’s still possible to ease your reader’s way into a story, even if that story starts right in the thick of all the action.
Give your readers what they need (or what you want them to think they need) in pieces. Novels are like a puzzle, and you have to give your readers those pieces, let them determine which piece goes where while they read, until they get to the end and see the big picture.
And short can mean a lot of things, it all just depends on your story and how you’re writing it. It can be anything from one word to five to, well—if you’ve got sentences with hundreds of words in them, well, like I said, it depends on what YOU are doing.
And with short, you can obscure things like emotions or facts that you’re not ready to reveal, right off the back. If you write something like, “He was dead.” Your reader isn’t necessarily going to know if that’s a good thing or not, which will hopefully encourage them to keep reading and find out.
5 Or Make It Long
I’m not here to tell you what to do. If you want to start your story off with a 200-word monologue, you do you. Just make sure it fits with the rest of it.
6 Try Some Dialogue, But Only If It’s Good
Yes, it’s short, but don’t start your story off with something like, “Hey.”
Why, you may find yourself asking, since I did just recommend starting off with something short, and “Hey.” certainly is one of the shortest things you can do.
But, “Hey.” Doesn’t really do much by way of emotion, and if you’re going to do short and dialogue, then you need to make sure it has punch (see: emotion).
And it could all be a matter of your punctuation. “Hey!” Sure comes off as pointed, and could either be like, “Hey! I’m happy to see you!” or “Hey! Come back there with my purse!” So, if you’re going to do short dialogue, you need to make sure that the dialogue is good and brings something to the story.
7 Give Your Reader A Fact
Give them something that relates to your story.
Or does it?
That’s up for your reader to determine as they go. There’s nothing that says you can’t lie to your readers. Everyone lies, all the time.
So you can give your reader a fact like, “On Sunday, the protagonist is going to die.”
Now, that might happen, that might not. It’s up for the reader to read on to find out.
Or maybe you’re writing a story with a royal family. Give your readers a quick fact about the line of succession.
“All the kings are dead. Long live the queen.”
8 Read Other Books
This one’s important. Read books from authors you love.
Well, you love them for a reason, right?
There was something in the first lines of your favorite stories that drew you in and kept you interested. Research what your favorite writers are doing. Don’t copy them, because plagiarism is bad and you should never do it, but take the inspiration you get when you read stories by your favorite writers and turn it into something all of your own.
If you’ve read every single book that your favorite author has ever written, chances are you’ve picked up on a thing or two, a bit of consistency or a quirk or a theme in that author’s opening lines. Use that inspiration from your favorite writer or writers to help you find your theme, the quirk you want to use when you start off your story.
9 More Things To Think About
The opening lines I talked about in the introduction to this piece are there for a reason, but don’t forget that, while the classics are a fantastic place to learn from, don’t take too much from them, because you don’t want to be seen as trying too much to be like them. You want your story to be yours, and you want your opening line to be uniquely you.
If you find something that you like, like starting your story with a description of the weather, see what else is out there and give it a spin that is unique to your writing style and to your story. No writer is the same, no writer is going to write the same way.
You can give a room of 50 people the same writing prompt (need a prompt? Check out the Prompt Library) and you’ll get 50 completely different stories. Interested in 50 more best first sentences in fiction? Hop on over to this blog post from Gawker Review of Books. I like the last one. Weird is my watchword.
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Want more prompts? Check out the Prompt Library.
Do you have a question about writing that you want me to answer? Leave a comment below! (I’m also answering questions in the Facebook group. Hop on over and say hi!)