You’ve thought of your story idea, devised your main character and your supporting cast, created a basic outline, and maybe even written down your story’s central themes. Yet all of that work, as rewarding and powerful as it is, still feels like you’re holding your breath. When does the exhale finally happen? When you dive in and write the first few lines of your brand new tale.
I love the opening to a well-written book, almost as much as the opening scene of a strong movie. For both mediums, the point of the opening is nearly identical: to draw the reader in, set the tone of the story that’s about to unfold, and convey micro examples of the trials and emotions that are soon to follow. Two movies whose openings I adore are Crash (2004) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012).
So much is conveyed in the opening to Crash: The importance of human contact, the speed at which we can devolve into a racist mindset, and even the main color palette of the movie, which is black and blue.
Similarly, tone and narrative are quickly established in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The music is cheery, even as Charlie tells the recipient of his letter (and us) that he is both excited and nervous for his first day of school. We can also see that he is lonely and doesn’t have any friends to share his thoughts with.
While movies have the luxury of using sound and moving images to hold our attention, books aren’t nearly as privileged. For us writers, we truly have to make our one shot count; the reader is banking on our first two or three sentences to do two things: (1) Capture their interest, and (2) Give them a clear picture of what they can expect by accompanying us on this literary journey. Will they be scared, shocked, grief-stricken, humored, made to contemplate their existence, or have their faith in a deity tested? If so, then chances are they will be intrigued and decide to keep reading.
It may seem daunting, but the beauty of the first lines are usually in their simplicity. They are not the place to begin a long-winded sentence that poorly disguises your main theme, or unload the names, ages, and physical descriptions of your characters. Rather, those first few words are where you can stretch your wings, convey your tone, and zone the reader in on the most important action, event, or character of your story. Just look at the opening line to Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451:
As you can tell, fire will be at the core of this Dystopian novel. It also immediately sets up two conflicting experiences: human pleasure, and the use of fire to destroy. Such antithetical experiences immediately conjure up a sense of dread and uncertainty in most readers, including myself.
Personally, I know I could stand to improve my opening lines for all of my works. It is a joy to mull over how I can make each first sentence tighter, more informative, and more tone heavy.
How much value do you assign to your opening line? Do you find it easy to convey your story’s premise right at the beginning, or does it take you a few more sentences to get there? Comment below and I’ll happily get to discussing with you all.