Opening Lines

Opening lines are hard to write because they have to do so much:

Ask the story question; establish the voice; set the tone of the story; establish the scene

What Opening Lines Must Do:

  • Set up the main question the reader is going to be asking all the way through
  • Establish the voice of the protagonist/narrator
  • Set the tone
  • Ground the reader in a time or place

That’s why I advocate writing the first lines last—or at least tweaking them after you’ve finished the story, when you know what it’s about.

So, how do you make your first line reflect all these things?

Let’s look at some examples.

Maidencane – Chad B. Anderson

Nowadays the memory starts like this: there’s a rush in the red dirt, and you and your brother snatch up the tackle box and run from the girl. She flings her fishing pole at you and yells that her daddy will just buy her another tackle box. And another, and another. The girl’s echoes follow you along the riverbank.

This opening paragraph sets the story firmly in the narrator’s voice: which, in this case, is second person. It’s still a relatively unusual point-of-view but I’m seeing it more and more, especially in short stories. I think it gives the story an immediacy it might otherwise lack, and draws the reader in. It also introduces the prospect of the narrator being unreliable. They’re holding us at arm’s length, not saying “I did this” but “say, you did this”.

(I always feel like there’s an unspoken “hypothetically…” in a second-person story. I kind of like it.)

“Nowadays” – implies that something has changed over time. This pulls the reader in, asking a question that they expect to find the answer to, before the end of the story.

This kind of question will hook the reader and keep them reading until you answer it. (At which point, I hope, you’ve asked another question to keep them reading.)

“The memory starts” – this invites the reader to ask more questions: why are we hearing about a memory? Why not just talk about the memory with the other participants in the scene? Where are they now? What is going to be significant about this memory.

(Remember: short story readers are puzzle-solvers. They know every detail in a short story is there for a reason and they enjoy tallying them up, trying to unpick the story puzzle as they read. Don’t frustrate them by throwing in things that waste their time and mental energy!)

“A rush in the red dirt” – This language is non-obvious. What does it mean? It slows the reader down as they try to make sense of it. It sets the tone for the story: it’s going to be literary. It also raises questions in the reader’s head. This time the question is answered quickly: the rush is a girl. In telling us that, the writer immediately raises more questions: they are running from the girl. Why? Who is she? What will the consequences of this interaction be, for the characters and the story?

“She flings the fishing pole at you” – this is wonderful example of showing, not telling: she doesn’t “throw the pole, angrily”. She flings it. It’s the perfect word. It is active. It invites the reader to see the scene and to wonder what came before, and what will come after. You want to keep reading, don’t you?

“Her daddy will just buy her another” – we can hear the defiance in the girl’s voice, but the writer doesn’t tell us too much, too soon. We don’t know if it’s true, or why he mentions this. Is her daddy rich? Is she spoiled? Is she proud and faking it? What is going on, here?!

Following directly on from this paragraph, the writer slows things down a bit, describing the scene and shifting the mysteries from the question he’s raised about the girl, to new questions about the brother (“you wish you could remember the songs he liked” — why can’t you just ask him?)

This paragraph sets up much that the story will be about: it turns out to be about memory and consequences, and relationships.

While the girl in the opening does turn up again throughout the story (in a way), the story pivots to one about the narrator’s family, her relationship with her brother. But it is also a story about memory and consequences.

All these things are in the opening, along with questions the reader wants answered, a strong sense of voice and place, and action that pulls us into the story.

It’s a strong opening.

ARE WE NOT MEN? By T. C. Boyle

The dog was the color of a maraschino cherry, and what it had in its jaws, I couldn’t quite make out at first, not until it parked itself under the hydrangeas and began throttling the thing. This little episode would have played itself out without my ever noticing except that I’d gone to the stove to put the kettle on for a cup of tea and happened to glance out the window at the front lawn. The lawn, a lush blue-green that managed to hint at both the turquoise of the sea and the viridian of a Kentucky meadow, was something I took special pride in and any wandering dog, no matter its chromatics, was an irritation to me.

See how the author buys himself time to meander through the backstory tea-making, the glance, the specific colors of the glass, his general feelings about dogs, all because we want to know what the dog has and why it is the color of a maraschino cherry?

This tantalizing promise gives him the opportunity to step back, to woo us with the character’s voice. This man is fussy and odd and leaps off the page (who knows “the viridian of a Kentucky meadow?).

At this point, the reader has no idea what the story is really going to be about, but the voice was one I wanted to hang out with. The seemingly-throwaway details (the cherry-colored dog; the fancy lawn) turn out to be extremely relevant to the themes of the story. It’s the kind of opening that, when you get to the end, seems even more satisfying than it did when you first read it.

That’s what we should be aiming for.

GOD’S WORK by Kevin Canty

Sander loves his mother. He walks a few steps after her, wearing a new black suit that has room for him to grow into, carrying a big black valise of pamphlets. When his mother goes to the front door to ring the bell, waits fan answer, Sander stands behind her, looking over her shoulder, with an expression on his face that he means to be pleasant.

You are already wondering how screwed up this boy is going to turn out to be, aren’t you? Don’t you want to read on to find out?

I found this opening deeply uncomfortable. There was something subservient, repressed, underdeveloped, in Sander, even before I knew he was 17. The story deals with these repressed feelings and the way his upbringing stunts Sander’s relationships with other people.

It’s all here in the opening.

A SMALL SACRIFICE FOR AN ENORMOUS HAPPINESS by Jai Chakrabarti

From his balcony, Nikhil waited and watched the street as hyacinth braiders tied floral knots, rum sellers hauled bags of ice and the row of elderly typists, who had seemed elderly to him since he’d been a boy, struck the last notice of tea daily work. Beside him on the balcony, his servant, Kanu, plucked at the hair that grew from his ears.

The fifth word of this story introduces some suspense: what is Nikhil waiting for? The writer doesn’t tell us straight away. Instead we’re treated to a view of the street, with its sense of festival/echoes of a wedding (which turn out to be not accidental).

By telling us that the elderly typists had ‘seemed elderly to him since he was a boy’, the writer tells us that Nikhil is older, himself. We’re never told what age Nikhil is, but it’s not necessary. If we’re in any doubt that he is past the first flush of youth, we have a servant plucking hairs from his ears (not a service a younger man would need). We soon see that Kanu is, himself, elderly and hard of hearing, which places Nikhil, the protagonist whose viewpoint we are in, somewhere before that stage, himself.

At the end of this passage, we don’t know what or who Nikhil is waiting for, but we have a sense of a festival, an occasion. There is a hint of matrimony, or that this story is going to contain a romance…and it does—several.

It has also settled us into a world that is clearly not present-day Western: the balcony, the servant, the floral-knot braiders, the rum-sellers with their ice, the typists.

Don’t you want to know what Nikhil was waiting for, in his fragrant, sensuous world?

How To Fix Your Own Opening Lines

Now that you’ve seen what a great opening can do, are you looking at your own stories with a twisted expression on your face?

Don’t panic!

You can make your openings stronger with a few quick tweaks.

  1. Read over your story and think about the major theme that emerged. Find a way to raise a question about that theme in the opening few lines. For inspiration, look read “Maidencane” by Chad B. Anderson in The Best American Short Stories 2017.
  2. Use language that strongly illustrates your character’s voice and personality. For inspiration read “Are We Not Men?” by T. C. Boyle.
  3. Set the tone for the story by concentrating on how your opening lines might make the reader feel. For (uncomfortable) inspiration, read “God’s Work” by Kevin Canty.
  4. Ground your story in a time and place, without resorting to telling us where it takes place. For inspiration read “A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness” by Jai Chakrabarti.

What would you add? Leave a comment.