Ten Great Openings (and Two to Grow On)
If You Can't Start Something Nice, Don't Start It At All

Writers learn pretty quickly that you're supposed to start with a bang. I sifted through about 400 short stories and found the opening lines that grabbed me the most. But first (and I know the suspense is killing you), let's talk a wee bit more about openings.

First, I chose to look at opening lines only. Yep--just one sentence. "But what if it's short sentence?" you say. "You should read more. It isn't fair." Nonsense, I say. Do your analysis your own way if you like, but one sentence makes sense because--

- It's clear-cut. It would be silly to pick a certain number of opening words, for example, and be required to stop mid-sentence. That just makes for confusing openings.

- It's a grammatically sensible place for a reader to decide to stop reading your story.

- If you hear words in your head as you read, it's a reasonable place to stop reading from an auditory standpoint as well.

Second, let's remember the basics. Your opening paragraph (not necessarily sentence) should introduce a compelling character with a problem, and possibly a setting. I'm counting on you already knowing that. If the opening sentence can do some or all of that, even better.

Third, what's compelling to me may not be compelling to you. So sue me.

I've broken the openings into a dozen different types to give you ideas for how to construct openings yourself. Some of the example openings from the 400 stories could easily fit in multiple categories, but you'll notice that for yourself as you go along.

1) In the Midst of the Ordinary, the Not-So-Ordinary (or Downright Bizarre).

"The green grin began at one edge of the vacant lot behind a flattened plastic garbage can which had been mauled the previous winter during a sloppy snow removal, then swept through many yards of tousled weeds and scraggly grass grown tall and thick through a hot, humid summer and finally terminated at the lot's other edge amid the roots of a young oak which was the only tree present." The Big Green Grin by Gahan Wilson

"The three muggers who stopped him that October night in San Francisco did not anticipate much resistance from the old man, despite his size." The Last Defender of Camelot by Roger Zelazny (Notice that we have already a compelling character with a problem.)

2) Okay, Now You Gotta Tell Me (AKA -- A Good Mystery)

"I waited and watched for seven years." Dolan's Cadillac by Stephen King (Even this brief opener gives us a character. How so? Well, we've got someone patient enough to watch and wait for seven years. And a problem... it's got to be some interesting conflict that made him wait this long.)

"Around the corner from the doormen, the limos, the taxis, and the revolving doors at the entrance to Le Palais, one of New York's oldest and grandest hotels, there is another door, this one small, unmarked, and--for the most part--unremarked." Dedication by Stephen King (Don't you just want to see what's behind that door, now?)

"All right, I'll tell you why the Girl gives me the creeps." The Girl with the Hungry Eyes by Fritz Leiber

3) Brevity Is the Soul of A Good Opening (See quote by Robert Sawyer in Lesson #10)

"There was a shark in the kitchen." To the East, A Bright Star by James Maxey

"I know you've seen lions." The Princess and the Bear by Orson Scott Card

4) Sharp, Pithy Characterization

"He was the sort of boy who always had a stick in his hand unless he chanced to have a stone." Wild Thing by Charles Coleman Finlay

"The first thing she did upon arising was count her money." Counting Cats in Zanzibar by Gene Wolfe (notice that this one fits the brevity bill as well.)

5) A Great Voice

"You needn't think I'm crazy, Eliot--plenty of others have queerer prejudices than this." Pickman's Model by H.P. Lovecraft

"Even with the evidence before you, I'm sure you will not believe my account of my own suicide." Memories of My Head by Orson Scott Card (This kind of opening doesn't need to sound like someone insane. That's just the examples I found.)

6) A Bold Promise That We Are About To See Something Original

"There is a principle in nature I don't think anyone has pointed out before." Blood Music by Greg Bear

7) Plain Pithiness / Keen Observations About Human Nature

"There aren't many hitchhikers on the road to Hell." Dead Run by Greg Bear

"In was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened." The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Ernest Hemmingway (This also fits under #2 above, but people pretending that something bad or embarrassing comes across to me like a spot-on description of human nature that rings true for all of us.)

8) An Interesting Philosophical Proposition

"Strange how one can be so close to freedom, yet still wish for death." Flotsam by Bradley Beaulieu

"There are few persons, even among the calmest thinkers, who have not occasionally been startled into a vague yet thrilling half-credence in the supernatural, by coincidences of so seeming marvelous a character that, as mere coincidences, the intellect has been unable to receive them." The Mystery of Marie Roget by Edgar Allan Poe

9) Portentous in a Grandiose Way (a Twist on Mere "Mystery")

"In a quiet moment late in the tranquil year of 2999 four men are struggling to reach an agreement over the details of their plan to blow up the Louvre." The Millenium Express by Robert Silverberg

"Lovely as it was, with the blood and all, Render could sense that it was about to end." He Who Shapes by Roger Zelazny (Notice the name--even that is loaded, and could be linked to the blood on a symbolic level.)

10) Lyrical Prose (That Also Catches Your Interest Via Another of the Above Categories)

He screamed from all his mouths, then covered all his ears., Monkey See, Monkey Deduce by Jonathan Laden (To me, this just sounds good to my mental ear. Perhaps it's the repetition, and it's almost perfect iambic pentameter. That's what I mean by this category.)


11) Jaw-droppingly Beautiful Descriptive Prose

This is for those of you with a more literary bent, perhaps, or you style-monkeys. Send me an example if you have a good one. I'm thinking something that doesn't necessarily score too high on any of the above categories, but is written so well that it is still compelling.

12) Quirky or Especially Interesting Dialogue

It seems like this ought to work, but in my own experience, it doesn't. It seems to be difficult to ground the reader when you open with dialogue. And a character saying something that fits one of the above categories perhaps doesn't carry as much weight as the narrator saying it. Maybe. Again, if you have a good example, email it to me!

BOTTOM LINE:The better your first line, the more likely you are to compel a reader to continue. As far as the ideas above, use one or use 'em all, but use 'em!

NEXT:How To Screw Up the Opening Line

Lessons List * 1* 2* 3* 4* 5* 6* 7* 8* 9* 10* 11* 12

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