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.

Story Openings, Part 2, More Opening Techniques

In last week’s post, I stated that the action opening is the best opening because it begins in the middle of things, that is, in the middle of events happening to a character.

However, not every novel must open this way. The one rule about a good opening is this: it must always hook the reader and cause him/her to want to read more.

Here are two more types of openings:

1.         Opening lines. If written well, they can draw us in immediately. One of my favorite opening lines comes from Louis L’Amour’s novel, Sackett’s Land. Here’s what Mister  L’Amour wrote:

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 work? It not only hooks us, it also packs lots of important information into one concise sentence.

            a.         We’re introduced to the main character, and by the third paragraph we learn his   name is Barnabas Sackett. Since Barnabas is telling us the story, it’s written from his point of view.

            b.         The Hook. Barnabas has come to grief, but we must read on to find out what kind of trouble he’s in and how he got into it. We have a hint of danger, that something  is about to happen.

            c.         We learn three things about Barnabas, all relevant to his story. We learn (1) that  he has a temper, (2) he’s skilled with weapons, and (3) his father taught him how  to use them. L’Amour sets the stage for future events.

            d.         L’Amour’s narrative style continues for several pages before dialogue begins. Though Barnabas is writing about past events, he’s not writing backstory. Why not? Because backstory interrupts a story’s progress. Barnabas’s story doesn’t do that. He’s writing from another setting, looking back on past events, and these   past events are the story. The hook is that Barnabas will tell us some exciting  things that happened to him. Also, we see lots of action in the opening scene.

2.         Description. I’m not contradicting my previous post. Throat-clearing happens when we write numerous pages and paragraphs of static description before we get into our story. Static description is description without movement, like looking at a statue and listing its features. However, if we write our opening description  correctly, we can use it. A good descriptive opening has three features: a feeling of  action or movement, introduces at least one character, and it must be brief. Here’s how I started Book 2 in my Southern Sons-Dixie Daughters series, River Ruckus, Bloody Bay:

As the British steamer Bahama rounded forested Hog Island, she entered Nassau’s harbor and Master Alexander Jessup, Confederate States Navy, widened his eyes.  Side-wheelers and sailing sloops, screw steamers of every length and tonnage, hundreds it looked like, crowded it. British, Yankee. And blockade-runners, easily recognized by their long, low profile, squat masts, and bluish-white or lead color meant to blend in with the dawn’s light. Designed for speed, Alex had seen some of them under construction in Scotland during his recent stay in London.  

     Sails furled, they gently rocked on its clear as glass swells. Several ships steamed out, their funnels streaming smoke. Nassau caught his eye. The warm tropical sunrays bathed an array of buildings painted various colors and swaying palms; ladies twirling parasols, their escorts alongside, strolled its nearby beach. No longer was it that sleepy little Bahamian village he’d remembered from before the war.

     A half hour later he and Stribling worked their way up a curbed, people-packed walkway beneath royal poinciana trees’ brilliant red-orange canopies and past colorful limestone buildings. The whole island of New Providence, Alex recalled, was mostly limestone. Buggies jostled and maneuvered up a macadamized road. Some passersby curiously eyed the cast net draping Alex’s sea chest. A train of wagons carrying boxes stacked atop boxes marked “C.S.A.” headed for the wharves.

     “I imagine they’ll be loading those crates on one of our runners,” Stribling said. “They’re certainly not trying to hide whose side they’re on.”

And so the dialogue continues between my characters, Alex and Stribling, as we move into the story. The Hook: an exotic location that plays a key role in America’s Civil War.

Till next week, friends, thanks for visiting my blog!