How To Write the Opening Line

I guess I was bored in June 2020, and I posted a challenge in the Writing Fiction group on Facebook. The Challenge was “Post the genre, protagonist, and the objective of the story (ex: A dystopian sci-fi in which a young female mercenary must travel a hostile terrain to deliver a trailer load of water) and I will try to post the opening sentence or sentences to the story”.

The first fellow to respond gave me this: “Cozy/softboiled murder mystery in which a retired gymnast must make a new life for herself with an assumed identity, in rural Australia.”

This was my response:

The backpack was heavy, but it was a nice kind of heavy, and even under the hot sun it didn’t feel like an escape run.

It was relatively easy to come up with this, because I was already told that the story should sound cozy, that it would take place in Australia, and that it was a murder mystery. So, immediately the reader is introduced an athletic protagonist who enjoys carrying a heavy backpack under the hot sun, and she is escaping from something.
This opening follows the “rule” or presenting a mystery in the first sentence. What is she escaping from and why is she having a good time escaping from it?
Quintin Tarantino famously opened his movie Pulp Fiction with the words “Forget it. It’s too risky.” He did not explain at the outset what it was that was so risky, but succeeded in drawing in the audience.

The second challenge posted gave a more lengthy description of a story: “100 years into the future, the world is covered with radioactive cloud which forces people to always wear protective suit live in darkness. People live inside cars. Everyone is always travelling looking and fighting with each other for more resources. The cars cannot stop and they must fight in this dark, foggy and stormy world with each other.”
Notice that he does not use the truncated code word “dystopian future” and chooses to describe his bleak future world. He gives me enough background to convey the emotions of his story, which is always a good idea when presenting a synopsis of a story.

Here is my opening line:

The worst sound to hear was a sputter, like your engine was breaking down or running out of gas, because that could be fatal.

Once again I employed the “mystery rule”. Suppose you were reading this line for the first time without any prior knowledge of what kind of story were to follow. What would you gather from this opening line? The first is the mystery. What kind of an environment would you have to be in for an engine failure to be fatal? And also there is the fear. “The worst sound to hear…” When you set your story in a high-stakes environment, one of the most useful questions to ask is “What is the worst thing that could happen?” And you can incorporate that into your story emotions.

Following the same pattern, the third challenge was this: A Japanese scientist commits suicide after criticisms on his controversial effort, sponsored by the government, to save a mass murderer and cult leader through stem cell therapy for the treatment of the leader’s eye cancer.

This was interesting in that it was obviously a reference to the Shoko Asahara, leader of the dooms-day cult responsible for the nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, which killed 13 people and crippled many others. He was blind due to a childhood eye disease.

Here is my opening line:

Three consecutive database searches confirmed his results, but he dared not show his excitement for he was aware of the risks should the word get out.

Again, if you read this line without knowing anything about the story, you would wonder what is the risk this person is facing? You can tell without any knowledge that you are reading about some kind of a researcher and that he has made a significant discovery, but there is an element of danger and mystery to it.

Posing a mystery in the first line is a commonly used trick. It might come in handy if you are writing any kind of a thriller or genre fiction.

Some opening lines do not pose a mystery but showcase the theme of the entire story. A great example is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina which begins “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” You may agree or disagree with this observation, but you can see that this opening line does not show you the protagonist, or the setting, or events of the story that is about to follow. It does not present a mystery or a sense of urgency. But it does sound philosophical and it may give you a hint as to what the story is about.

Another great example in this vein is the opening sentence from Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” You have no mystery, no urgency, no hint of a scene, but you do understand the philosophy and the detached stance towards romantic love.

In this category, another challenger gave me this: “Noir science fiction featuring an alcoholic and burnt out hacker uncovering a genocidal plot.”

My opening line:

Beware the man who cares for nothing. When he finds something to care about, he has nothing left to lose.

Similarly, there was this contribution: “A psychological drama in which a young female filmmaker who has made a successful short film is offered the opportunity to make her debut feature for a huge pay, but she will have to move to Brazil and work closely with a filthy rich drug kingpin who wants to make it into the film industry.”

I looked up a few European film festivals and tried to come up with a descriptive opening for this story before giving up and producing a philosophical one.

My opening line:

When you put your soul up for sale, it is always the devil who will offer to buy. But what artist can resist?

The thing about philosophical openings is that it is not an epigraph. It is the first line of the story, not a different isolated quote. Even though it sounds like a universal law that could apply to any story, it also serves as a segue into the story proper. Tolstoy’s “every unhappy family” is an introduction into a story about a specific unhappy family. The arrogant tone of “It is a truth universally acknowledged” is a preview to the story world to come. Therefore, you must have a connection to the story. That is why I did not stop at “When you put your soul up for sale, it is always the devil who will offer to buy.” But added, “But what artist can resist?” which is what the story is really about.

There is also a kind of opening line that does not describe the story, but only sets the tone of the voice.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

None of these famous openings tell you anything about the story. They only hint to you how the story is going to be told.

I did not go this route with any of the challenges because that would deviate from the point of the challenge. I was supposed to write an opening that would fit the parameters of the story that was presented. These cold openings could fit any story regardless of the premise presented.

That doesn’t mean I cannot write them though. I came pretty close a couple of times.

One of them was to this challenge: “A young boy in a steampunk city with no understanding of science trying to make his way in the world”

My opening line:

The steam whistle wailed in a deep throaty hoot to mark whatever o’clock the occasion was.

Fourthly, there is the “instant world building” opening. That is when you attempt to describe the world in which the story takes place in the opening line. Hemmingway does this brilliantly. “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

In this vein there was this challenge: “Dark fantasy epic with a middle-age retired soldier who are forced back into violence when his children are abducted into slavery by eldritch aristocrats.”

My opening line:

The heavily built man softly put his mug of mead beside him to survey the serene pasture, quietly reflecting on the years of bloodshed that bought his peace and the happiness he built over it.

The same poster also provided this challenge: “A teenage street urchin in a Victorian age historical crime novel. Encounters with a serial killer leads to the revelation of something far more sinister.”

My opening line:

The best time to pick a gentleman’s pocket is between the hours five and six when the gas lights are lit one by one by the lamplighters with long iron poles and the streets are full of shoppers, commuters, and general marauders rushing heather tether over the cobble stones in their own self-important urgency.

He also provided this challenge: “Weird west family saga following a clan of goblin prospectors in Deadwood, beginning with the gold rush.”

My opening line:

Prices had gone up again. Twelve dollars for a used shovel, what a nuisance. There must be robbers out there killing off prospectors for their shovels.

In a span of about six hours, I answered 26 challenges. This was actually quite challenging. Some of my responses ended up comically desperate. Such as with this post: “A horror novel in which a runway model turned serial killer has a secret: she can’t cook. How will she impress her date tonight with her purported culinary skills?”

My opening:

“What’s the bread knife for?”
He answered his own question while she smiled silently through her perfect teeth struggling for a good lie.
“For cooking, right? I didn’t think you’d be the domestic type”
“Oh, I’m domestic. Really. Really domestic”

My opening sentences tended to get longer and/or murkier when the description or the story was vague or incomplete. It is always easier to write a sharp, gripping opening line when you know what the overarching emotion is. When you are writing a full length novel, or even a medium length short story, I suggest you write out your first draft first and go back to refine your opening line afterwards. That way, you will know what the story is shaped like before you compose the opening line. There are some basic principles to writing an opening line as shown above. There are other elements in composing an opening line that I have not mentioned. Study carefully the opening lines of great literary works and popular best sellers. Experiment with them to see how you would fit them to your own story.

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