Story Openings: First Lines

“Historical novels are, without question, the best way of teaching history, for they offer the human stories behind the events and leave the reader with a desire to know more.” Louis L’Amour, Education of a Wandering Man, Bantam, December 1, 1990.

In medias res—in the middle of things. Must all stories open this way? In my opinion, it’s the best way. But, as one reads short stories and novels, it’s obvious not every story begins this way. In the pen of a skilled writer, other options exist. The one thing all good openings possess, though, is this—they hook readers. Writers have a few seconds to do this—one sentence, one paragraph, or in the case of a novel the first page. Between 200 and 250 words, at the most.

Effective opening lines hook readers when they immediately draw those readers into the story. Writers should spend lots of thought on these because they can make or break a short story or book. When pondering an opening line, think about your reader. Is your reader watching an old rerun he finds boring, or perhaps he’s in a bad mood. What opening line can you come up with that will liven his day and get his interest in what you’ve written?

To see what I mean., let’s look at the opening paragraphs of Louis L’Amour’s novel, Sackett’s Land. The line below is the first line in the book.

It was my devil’s own temper that brought me to grief, my temper and a skill with weapons born of my father’s teaching.

What makes this opening line work? Let’s look closer.

Analysis of the First Line of Sackett’s Land

  • It introduces the main character, which every opening should do, and by the third line we learn that his name is Barnabas Sackett.
  • Readers learn a few things about Barnabas, all relevant to his story, and these are: (1) he has a temper, (2) he’s skilled with weapons, and (3) his father taught him how to use the weapons.
  • The Hook: Barnabas has come to grief. So, readers want to know what happened and continue reading to find out.

What keeps readers reading? Barnabas Sackett and his first line. He’s such an interesting character, readers want to follow him, even though the book’s first several pages have no dialogue and little serious conflict

Other Famous Opening Lines

“It was a pleasure to burn.” Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, 1984

“This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.” William Goldman, The Princess Bride

“All children, except one, grow up.” J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

So, spend time working on and writing a knockout first line, one that’ll hook readers in seconds.

2 thoughts on “Story Openings: First Lines

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