Story opening lines are critical to your writing success. How many fantasy tales have you read that start with “In the year of 456, the dark Kingdom of Somethingness was on the verge of war…”? As a reader and editor, I’ve seen too many.
We care about the characters. They are what hooks us into the story, and they keep us reading until the end. The relationships between the characters, their fates, their transformations, the power dynamics are the core of any story – they are the heart of the drama.
Asking the reader, especially in short stories, to wait for the actual characters to show up later than the story’s opening lines means, almost always, that the writer is misusing the trust of the reader.
Literary Credit Score
There is a credit of trust between the reader and the writer. Built on making and fulfilling promises about the story, it is a silent contract between the storyteller and their audience. By filling the story opening lines with things that the reader does not yet care about, you borrow from that credit. If it is not repaid soon enough – you lose the reader.
In discussions about beginning stories with worldbuilding, fantasy and sci-fi, authors love to bring out the corpse of the Lord of the Rings and point at six million pages of “Concerning Hobbits” chapters describing the smoking and culinary habits of halflings with hairy feet.
However, The Fellowship of the Ring actually reinforces the position that we should start with the characters. J.R.R. Tolkien shows us the equilibrium of the peaceful life of the peace-loving hobbits. He makes sure that by the start of the action we care not only for Frodo and Sam but for the way of life and the community that they represent.
This artistic decision allows for the rest of the story to work – we care enough to endure fifty-seven pages of elven poetry and whatever that Tom Bombadil nonsense was.
Your Story in a Single Sentence
Look at the beginning of Albert Camus’ The Stranger – “Aujourd’hui, maman est mort.” Today, Maman died. The first line tells the reader so much information with just three words – a plot point that is a wonderfully dramatic moment for the story and characterization – the distance of the book's protagonist, Meursault, from the woman who bore him. A single sentence paints a three-dimensional picture of the character, his world, and his subjective perception of that world.
That is true for all formats of writing, be it novels, novellas, or short stories. But it is most critical to short stories. With limited space, the story requires top-notch effort to be told as succinctly and efficiently as possible.
Good Story Opening Lines Need a Strong Base
That “Kingdom of Somethingness” sort of introduction, while being uninformative, tells the reader a lot:
- The writer did not think their beginning through.
- They used a clichéd set-up (only “waking up in the morning” is worse).
- They prioritized the wrong aspects of the story.
- They are info-dumping parts of the worldbuilding in the worst possible place.
Another aspect of weak beginnings is that they reveal the issues in the theoretical, behind-the-scenes, side of the writer’s storytelling techniques.
Dramatic storytelling is built on characters and their relationships, and the dialectical nature of it – the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis – allows for conflict to ensue and give birth to beautiful and engaging stories. When the author negates some part of the inner workings of the story and does not think them through or polish them enough, their story ends up limping on feet of clay.
But don’t despair - there is still hope...
In the Beginning, There Were Two Questions...
Authors could easily overcome the issue of a false start by asking themselves the following questions:
- What is the most integral part of the story that encapsulates the main characters, their struggles, atmosphere, and setting?
- What is the most efficient way to convey it?
The first one requires introspection into what image you as an author want to put into the mind of the reader, what aftertaste will last for weeks after they put your story down. To practice it, imagine yourself a sculptor, with Occam’s razor instead of a chisel in your hand, carving away all that does not add depth and tangibility to your image.
The second question requires patience and practice to master all the literary tools at your disposal. With each draft and each rewrite, the content and form of your story’s opening lines will improve (as will the overall quality of the text).
But this doesn’t mean you have to rewrite the same stuff endlessly in complete isolation (unless that’s what works for you) or religiously study Elements of Style. There is a myriad of resources to start with. Most of them available for free, including:
- Writing prompts
- Advice and exercises
- Writing communities (both online and IRL)
- Writing workshops
- Famous writers’ memoirs
- Loads and loads of books on the craft of writing
It took Stephen King more than fifteen years, and one can only wonder how many drafts, to come up with one of the best opening lines in modern literature, and what he himself considers one of the best lines he’s written: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed him.”
When I sort through the slush pile, I’m always giving every story a chance, reading it to the very end before rendering the final decision. Editing is another story. I’d die on the hill of beginning with the characters, and I do all I can so that my authors don’t forget about it.
There rarely are any writing rules or advice that can be applied universally. They are guidelines at best. Readers have different attention spans, different expectations, and different perceptions of the same techniques. And yet, when the underlying dramatic elements have been mastered, tamed, and polished, the reader stands no chance from the first sentence.