Among the most important words in your story are the ones that begin it. Those words should get the reader to ask, “What’s going on here?” so he turns the page.
Your opening lines – also known as the grabber or narrative hook – usually hook the reader by establishing the story’s conflict and mood.
Conflict is at the heartbeat of every story. Without it, the story becomes inert and purposeless. Because of this, you want to show your main character in a crisis or puzzling situation from the start. Consider these classic opening lines:
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. – Franz Kafka, “The Trial” (Conflict: How will an innocent Josef K. achieve freedom?)
It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. – Paul Auster, “City of Glass” (Conflict: Can the main character overcome the problem started by a wrong number?)
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. – Ernest Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea” (Conflict: Will the old man catch a fish and by doing so become “young” again?)
Why must they do it on December 28th? John Stapleton considered the question. – Theodore I. Thomas, “December 28th” (Conflict: Will John Stapleton figure out why – and maybe prevent – the unknown event from occurring on Dec. 28?)
This approach establishes – deliberately without much detail – the problem or conflict that the protagonist must resolve before the story can end. In doing so, those lines shows the main character threatened and often indicate what’s at stake for him. Sometimes they even hold a key clue as to how the main character will solve the central problem by foreshadowing the ending.
An opening sentence can opt to focus on establishing the mood rather than the main conflict. Through mood, the author hopes to evoke an emotional reaction in the reader. Some excellent examples of this include:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. – George Orwell, “1984” (Mood: Disorientation)
At 0150 Greenwich Mean Time on December 1, 1975, every telephone in the world started to ring. – Arthur C. Clarke, “Dial ‘F’ for Frankenstein” (Mood: Chaos)
The great eye floated in space. – Ray Bradbury, “The Lost City of Mars” (Mood: Surprise)
For a mood-establishing line to work, the line must be intriguing. Writing Pink and orange hues covered the sky as the sun set is an unsuccessful opening line because nothing interesting happens. Almost every sunset consists of pink and orange hues. However, An angry green hue covered the sky as the sun set is evocative because the sky is never that color at dusk unless a tornado is about to strike.
Cliché first lines
For writers, the challenge with most readers is that they read a lot. They’ve seen all kinds of plots, protagonists, villains and settings. Worse, even if they prefer the content and tone of specific genres, they don’t want to re-read a story, especially when they pick one up that claims to be original.
I cheekily say “worse” because the quickest way for an author to turn off a reader is to use a cliché opening. These are opening sentences or paragraphs that already have been done by other writers. Though you may think the opening was a clever idea (and it was, as another writer who published a story thought so, too), it becomes more unoriginal with each use. Because of this, even if the line establishes conflict and mood, these openings are best avoided.
Some common examples of cliché openings include:
• Blank page – The main character is staring at a blank page of paper, a blank computer screen, or a wall painted in one color. A variation of this is the white room syndrome, in which the character starts the story in a white room, a metaphor for a blank page.
• Dream – The extremely well-written (usually action-packed or quite lyrical) opening scene turns out to be a dream, from which the protagonist awakens (which also is a cliché, so this is a two-for-one rip-off).
• Funeral – The protagonist is at a funeral or wake, usually recalling the person who has died or trying to figure out why they did.
• “If only I’d…” – The story’s hero or narrator then fills us in on what he should have done or why he’s now in so much trouble.
• Mirror, mirror on the wall – The hero describes himself while looking in a mirror, usually pointing out physical flaws.
• “My name is…” – The protagonist gives readers a personal introduction.
• Travel update – The main character is en route while in a car, train or plane and recalling where he’s been and where he’s going.
• Waking up – The story’s protagonist awakens, usually to an alarm clock going off.
• Weather report – A lengthy description of the weather is given to set the story’s mood.
If you find yourself using any one of these cliché openings, consider rewriting it. Of course, you might possibly have devised some unique twist on these openings, but, honestly, the odds are against it.
Ideally, the opening line establishes both conflict and mood. Focusing on conflict, however, usually gives those first lines more energy. Mood and tone come naturally, as they flow from how the characters experience or react to the conflict.
And in a novel, unlike a short story, there’s a little more leeway with the opening lines, of course. In a short story, the author usually only has a couple of sentences to make this happen; in a novel, a couple of paragraphs typically is the limit.