First sentences are doors to worlds – Ursula K. Le Guin
As we move into our early writing careers and seek advice on how to improve our work, we are repeatedly told “write strong opening sentences.” We are given examples of such sentences. Some of my personal favorites:
- “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” – The Dark Tower, by Stephen King
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984, by George Orwell
- “The story so far: in the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams
Well, the last one is two lines, so a bit of a cheat. But you get the point. The problem is, no one ever really tells you how to write these lines. It’s mostly left up to you to absorb the examples and figure it all out.
What I’ve come to feel is opening lines can be very potent ingredients in your spice cabinet of writing techniques. They might do multiple things. Note I did not say should do multiple things. There are no shoulds in writing beyond the shoulds you hold yourself to.
Things an opening line might do: give you a sense of time and/or place. In the opening line to the Dark Tower, we have an immediate image of the old west, perhaps one of those spaghetti western films with Clint Eastwood as the unnamed hero (a view that will soon enough be undermined to great success). Or that bright, cold day in April of 1984. They might set a tone of voice, such as the dryly humorous offering of Douglas Adams. Sometimes they strike the reader with some strange incongruity (clocks that strike thirteen; people being upset the universe was created) to achieve some effect (showing you this is our world, but not quite; revealing this will be a humorous novel). A really good opening line might do several of these things.
But in my opinion a good opening line is also a PROMISE. You are saying to your readers “I promise to show you something amazing.” And that makes a good opening line scary.
I’ve written what I feel are good opening lines before. Some of them have even been published:
- “We took the boat out at dawn, like we had the last time we went fishing, over a century ago.”- Fishing Over the Bones of the Dragon (Common Bonds Anthology).
- “They took the baby, swaddled in a blanket made of soft, blue cotton, down the dirt track through vine-covered trees, deep into the swamp.” – “Remember the Washington,” They Said as They Fed the Ugoxli (Clarkesworld).
- “The mule died of thirst before I reached the border, not long after I started the final leg, traveling North West from El Nogalito.” – The Truth of a Lie (Apparition Literary).
Some of them remain to be sold. You’ll get to read those when they are.
I like to think all of these stories fulfill the promise of their opening lines. Maybe they do. Certainly there were some editors who felt they did and who purchased them for that very reason. As for the rest, I believe in them deeply and will keep on trying to sell them until they find the right place to shine.
The key thing here is in pretty much ALL of these cases, the strong opening line came before anything else. The line was the starting point for the story in question, the initial idea I had. And once I had that line (or lines) on the page, I was left staring at a lot of blank space while trying to decide what the rest of the story would be. In almost all cases, I rewrote the hell out of them trying to find the right way to tell the story the opening promised. Some took years to get right. I began writing The Truth of a Lie in 2015 (the idea come to me in 2014) and it wasn’t finished until 2018.
Which brings me to the latest opening I wrote. It came to me quickly, and with a little editing the entirety of it fell into place along with the general ideas the story would touch on. I had setting, a time frame, and from those I had characters and an overall theme.
Then I had to write the story.
I restarted this story four different times over a couple of months. Each start felt promising, and each time it fell apart after only a page or two. Nothing I could envision quite matched the promise of the opening, at least in my view.
In the middle of writing this, I attended a Reach Your Apex course with Marie Vibbert, which helped me push through. The course, The Art of Finishing, provided some excellent ideas on how to push through those places where you feel you’re being blocked. In this case, my sense of perfectionism and need to match the rest of the story to the start. I tried several of her recommendations, and felt the idea of writing down a list of what the story was NOT going to be about very useful in helping me narrow down what it WAS about.
I immediately changed the point of view character, and within a couple of days had a completed story. It’s now waiting on my writing group to critique. I already have a sense of what I want to change (there’s some heavy handed moralizing in it to try and “explain” the reasons for the main theme and I’ve decided to trim out a lot of that… the reasons aren’t important), but I look forward to hearing their thoughts soon.
After will come the real work. Editing the story to ensure the rest of it matches the promise of the opening. This is the hard part for me. Once I get the words flowing, laying down the first draft is something I find very rewarding. I find editing to be the real slog, because I once again have to battle my sense of perfectionism. But I’ll do what I can to make the rest of the story shine.
Opening lines are tough, and great ones are rare. When you get one, it’s lightning in a bottle and you need to hold onto that slippery little bastard and make the most of it for the sake of your readers. But don’t let perfection be the enemy of completion. Use all the techniques in your arsenal of writing skills to power through and get the story told, because we want and need your words. We crave them.
I just realized I didn’t tell you how to write an opening line, which is probably what you stopped in here for. It’s simple. Just write it. But I could no more teach you how to do that then I could teach you how to breathe. You simply do it over and over again, until one day you inhale the sweetest air you’ve ever tasted and you hold it in your lungs just a little bit longer before you breathe out once more.
Now get writing and open those doors for us.