21 February 2020

More about Opening Lines

More about Opening Lines

I feel the opening line of a short story or novel is the most important line in the piece. First impressions are the strongest, especially for a beginning writer who wants an editor to read beyond the first page of a manuscript.

"The first page sells your book being read, the last page sells the one you're writing." – Mickey Spillane."

The same goes for short stories, maybe more so.

Over the years, I put together information given by writers and editors. As I've said so many times before, there is no one way to write anything and what follows are just suggestions.

The opening of a novel or short story could capture the attention of the reader with an original hook.


a. By presenting compelling events
b. By presenting an unusual character
c. By presenting a vivid setting
d. By using striking language or dialogue
e. By an unusual presentation of ideas

It should arouse expectation with a promise of more to come.

It should let the reader in on WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, or WHY.

In your opening scene(s) you may want to establish:

a. Who is the main character?
b. What is the situation (the problem)?
c. Where is the story taking place (setting)?
d. When is the story taking place (time frame)?
e. Why did this situation happen?
f. How did the situation happen?

You may want to include a cliffhanger that makes the reader want to read on.

You opening should set the tone of the story.

The strongest type of opening usually hooks the read with action (physical or psychological).

The story does not generally open at the beginning of a situation. It usually opens at the high point of action.


Character Opening – If you are writing a character-driven piece.
Atmosphere Opening –Take your reader to a unique setting.
Action Opening – Start in mid-scene.
Dialogue Opening – Promises the reader there is a emphasis on communication between characters.
Philosophical Opening – Prepares the reader this may be a reflective piece.
Emotion Opening – Promises emotional conflict.

In a 2013 interview, Stephen King stated, "... an opening line should invite the reader to begin the story ... it should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this."

King went on with, "For me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about 'voice' a lot, when I think they just mean 'style'. People come to books looking ... for the voice. An appealing voice achieves an intimate connection – a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing."

Award-winning short story writer John Floyd gives us, "I've always heard that ideal openings should (1) introduce you lead character and/or (2) establish the setting (time, place) and/or (3) introduce conflict. A fourth goal is to make the reader curious about what might happen."

Important Note:
A good opening line is like the opening move in a battle. If you do not follow up a good opening, you could lose the battle.

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Editor Janet Hutchings gives us, "Some writers have told me they have an attention-getting opening line as the seed for the story. That's fine. But from a reader/editor's perspective what makes the opening good or bad is how it serves everything that follows in the story."

Writing novels and short stories is a trade. A profession. Not a philosophical exercise.

OK – we have all read excellent novels and short stories which did not have a good opening line, which proves again there is no one way to write. In the epigraph in Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury quotes Juan Ramón Jiménez – "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way."

Hey Paul,
Here is Charley. Gone but never forgotten.

Thats all for now –


  1. All good points here, O’Neil. And always good to have a refresher course. At least I know I need them from time to time.

    I particularly like what Stephen King said about voice. So true. And what Janet said about how the opening should serve everything that follows. Also so true. And sometimes it takes a little more than just an opening line to achieve that.

    And then Charley. Love that shot. Love the way he’s looking over the rim of the trash can with those intense green eyes. I’m sorry for your loss, O’Neil. I know what you said the other day and I know it hit you hard. But at least in some ways he’ll always be with you and they’ll always be with us.


  2. A fine tutorial on openings.

    I am sure you must miss the very appealing Charley. It's always hard to lose a beloved pet.

  3. Excellent advice, O'Neil. I often see what looks like an intriguing hook for a story...that turns out to have nothing to do with what comes after. That's cheating.

    I tell my writing workshops that just because the opening comes first doesn't mean you have to write it first. I suggest starting anywhere to get into the story. When you have a first draft done and know where you're going, that may tell you how to polish, hone, sharpen, and re-polish that opening. If it makes the reader ask a question, you're on the right track because it implies that you will answer it later.

    Ideally, the opening sets up the ending, too, but that's not as scary as it sounds. For example, if your story is a mystery, you're simply implying that there will be a solution. In other words, answering that question I mentioned above.

  4. Good points, O'Neil. I often find myself, during the writing of a story, going back to the opening again and again and changing it and tweaking it, because--as Janet said--that opening really has to tie into everything that follows. Openings are fun to write, I think, but they're always hard too (at least the good ones are).

    If anything, I believe openings are even more important than they used to be, because I believe the reader is harder to "hook" than he/she used to be. Someone told me he thought Daniel Defoe and Edgar Rice Burroughs and authors back then could afford to ramble and go on and on (as I am, here) in an opening because back then, the reader probably didn't have a whole lot of other things to be reading.

    Again, a great post--and thanks for the mention!

  5. Thanks for the post, O'Neil. I agree openings are important, and I have spent a lot of time writing and rewriting the opening paragraph of many a short story.
    And to some extent, John, that's true - 19th century (and before) audiences didn't have a lot of other stuff to be reading and nothing to watch, so the ramble was fine. But then, we've been carefully trained by television to have an attention span of what, 15 minutes? Maybe an hour? And our children and grandchildren are down to what, 7 seconds thanks to Vine and YouTube?

  6. Excellent and thorough advice regarding the opening lines. Not every story or book needs to start explosively. However, as you observe, there does need to be a form of narrative hook that draws and intrigues the reader into the story.

  7. Great advice. I find myself jotting down first lines all the time. When I return to them, if they don’t grab me, they surely won’t grab a reader so I either tweak them or let them die alone. You and I are quoting many of the same great authors in workshops. Thanks for today’s read. I really enjoyed it.

  8. Thanks for the comments. I did not know if this posting would sink or sail because many of those who read SleuthSayers are not beginning writers but I'm trying to do more posts about writing than some of my others, like the one about the woodpecker (although I did write an essay about the dead woodpecker). I prefer the more enteraining posts put up here, but hell, everything is good. Many are heartwrenching. More people should read SleuthSayers.

  9. Not only useful but thoughtful advice. But I really wanted examples (really, really). Maybe in your next post? So sorry about Charley; sometimes our cats and dogs are like second souls.

  10. Great post, O'Neil. I think readers often decide to dig into a book or a story based on its first line alone, and I'm one of them. I'm a big fan of starting with a bang ("His face hit the pavement hard.") or with a bit of intrigue ("For a sweet house, right on Santa Monica Beach, it was unbelievably easy to break into."). However you do it, you've got to provide narrative drive to make the reader want to know what happens next.


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