I wrote previously on writing to your power as a way to craft powerful sentences, and closed with an example from Brandon Sanderson, the opening line from his novel, Elantris:
“Prince Raoden awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.”
The topic of opening sentences deserves some special attention, for these are the first words of your story that an editor, agent, or publisher will read. Not to mention your reader. You want to grasp their attention and hold it long enough for the story’s hooks to set. You want to draw them in and make them want to read more.
There are plenty of articles and blog posts written about the importance of opening lines, plenty of explanations as to why they are especially important, or what they need to do. There are fewer that give concrete ways of getting better at writing that opening line, so that’s what I want to do here. The good news is that there are ways to practice. In one sense, it’s easier to practice with opening lines than it is with a broader subject, like plot structure. Instead of crafting an entire golf hole in your backyard, you only need a putting green. Something small and contained where you can practice the one shot—putting—that you need on every hole.
I’m a bit of a writing geek. I admit it. Like an overeager coroner I quite enjoy the dissection–though, in my case, it’s the dissection of a good story. I like to get under the hood, see the mechanicals and the whirly-gigs, the gear-ratios and the wiring. To see how a story works. Or, in certain circumstances, to learn why a story didn’t work.
To expose what a writer is doing in a passage, one of the things I’ll do is read that passage in isolation. This is a perfect way to study opening sentences: read only the opening two or three sentences knowing that you’re going to stop and not allow yourself to continue on with the story. Rather than slipping four or five pages into the story and thinking, “What a great story; I wish I knew how this author got me to want to read more,” you stop and face that question after just the opening line. Do you want to read more? If so, go back and see what it was in the opening lines that made you feel that way.
In fact, from time to time, I like to go to a local bookstore or the library, pick up an anthology of stories, and walk through that process, story after story. I did that recently, and one anthology caught my eye: Dark and Stormy Knights, edited by P.N. Elrod. Of the dozen or so stories in the book, all but two grabbed my attention and had me wanting to read more. Here are a few examples:
The problem with leucrotta blood is that it stinks to high heaven. It’s also impossible to get off your boots. — A Questionable Client, by Ilona Andrews
There were ten rounds in Ryder Ward’s glock, but he was only going to need one. — The Beacon, by Shannon K. Butcher
I got a letter from the Pope in the morning mail. Handwritten. — Even a Rabbit Will Bite, by Rachel Caine
These are clean, punchy, and evocative. You get a sense of the narrative voice and tone of the stories, not to mention some hint of how interesting these worlds will be. You could do worse than looking up this book and scanning the other stories to see how many of them grab your attention, and then spending a minute answering for yourself what the authors did that worked. Once you get a good feel for the sort of thing that’s getting your attention, try a few yourself. This is where it’s easier to practice opening lines than it is other aspects of writing, because you can practice writing opening lines without having to construct the rest of the story, the world, the characters, the overt-plot, the counterpoint plot, the motivations…
Too much, right? So, don’t worry about all that. Just write. Divorce your practice opening lines from any story in particular and bang out a few. Not only will this get you directly to the actual crux of the drill, but separating an opening line from the rest of the story also removes that blind spot we might have where our favorite, pet stories are concerned… you know, that part of you that’s so taken with the story that you want to write that you pay a little less attention to the first line, “Because the rest of it is sooo cool!”
If the story is that cool, then you need to do it the service of crafting a strong opening line. No one will know how great of a story it is if they can’t get past the first paragraph… and a paragraph may be more than you actually get with some editors.
Without a story that you’re emotionally attached to, the importance shifts to the opening line you’re writing as a part of this form of practice. Who knows, you might even find a story that you want to write based on an opening line that grabbed a fistful of your chest and set your skin to tingling.
If you like, post a few of your opening lines (or practice opening lines) in the comments, below.