The Opening Lines

I’ve been reading a wonderful serialized story by writer friend, Lance Burson called The Ballad of Helene Troy. He posts segments every few days at “My Blog can Beat Up Your Blog” and eventually this serial will become a full-length novel.

Recently, he posted the first 333 words of the story. It was quite brilliant that he write a new beginning considering I’ve been hooked on his story for sometime already. I then thought about what his starting lines revealed, and why they were so perfect.

What author doesn’t dream of an opening that will gain them the recognition of “Call me Ishmael”? The first lines set the tone and reveal key elements to a story. Without these elements, the story could fall flat within pages.

I’m no expert on this topic, but given the genre I write (erotic short stories), it’s important to build momentum toward climax within a limited time. The opening lines and paragraphs are therefore critical and should reveal the following:

1. Distinctive voice
2. Point of View
3. Basic Plot (with some characterization)
4. Setting
5. Conflict

These elements basically make up a complete story, but not all of them are exposed in their entirety upfront. A successful opener does not need to be complicated, but it will entice the reader to want more and continue reading. Revealing something about the protagonist’s nature or introducing a setting can be done without going overboard. It’s better to build momentum than to disappoint with an opener that over promises, but can’t deliver with its subsequent narrative.

Because stories evolve and can often go in a different direction than originally anticipated, it’s a good idea to revisit the beginning lines once you’ve reached the end. In some cases, I’ve had to rewrite the opening paragraphs because they no longer set the tone I wanted.

Though the first lines cannot salvage a story that lacks in other areas, a riveting opening can help define a piece. This is vital especially if you want to pursue the traditional publishing route. Think of it as an opportunity to make a good first impression on the editor. We all know initial reactions matter because you rarely get a second chance to make a first impression.

So, what are the things you look for when reading the opening lines of a story?



15 responses to “The Opening Lines

  1. Ah! The elusive opener. What sounds wonderful at the outset often falls flat later in the writing process.

    I prefer opening lines that catch the reader off guard and force questions. My latest thriller begins, “Sunday football games are supposed entertain, not result in thousands of casualties with hundreds more dead.” While not as enigmatic as Melville’s, so far it works. The best ones always look so easy.

  2. Pingback: The Opening Lines |

  3. I will have to read this series, it sounds wonderful. The opening is one of the hardest things to write since it is the thing that either grasps you or doesn’t.

  4. Very timely, Eden. I’m in the middle of ressurecting a short story that I thought would never see the light of day (or any other light), and this is gives me more to think about as I consider its totality.

    • Hi Ben, so great to see you here and thanks for your comment. I always read over my stories, but it’s good to concentrate just on the beginning to ensure it’s got all the elements that pull in the reader from the start.


  5. Great post! The opening is always tough and very important in screenwriting, too. I would add sixth point to your list:
    6. The Hook
    In screenwriting it’s what keeps them reading. 😉

  6. Wonderful writing advice, along with Lance’s blog. I’d call this a great two-for, for my Tuesday.
    Thanks for this post, eden!

  7. Thank you for mentioning me. When I submitted the original opening to a publishing contact, their reaction was “great, but this is like chapter 2 or 10. Where’s chapter 1.”

    I was offended and sulked like my youngest daughter when I won’t let her have a snack 15 minutes before dinner.

    Then I realized, how do readers identify with my main character?

    I’m honored you wrote this. Thank you.

    • You made me think about the importance of story beginnings, and their impact to a book. I think your new beginning is perfect, and reveals all the things a reader wants and needs to know.

      Though it’s not necessarily a strict formula, incorporating some of the elements I mentioned, along with the “hook” that Wally mentions in his comment help to keep a reader interested. That’s probably what your publisher was referring to when they asked for chapter 1.

      Can’t wait to see The Ballad of Helene Troy on my IPad and bookshelf.


  8. yay! i’m with you, eden. can’t wait. and so true, the opening is so important. it’s fascinating that lance wrote the beginning to this epic tale only recently.

    • Hi Marian, thanks for commenting here. I agree it was a good move for Lance to write the new beginning. It fits in perfectly with the story as I know it. Kind of like reading a book backwards!

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