So we know that your opening line, or at least your opening paragraph, will define the tone and style of your story. We know that the opening line needs to be snappy and powerful to win over casual browsers at a book store. But what does that all actually mean?
Let’s look at how to craft an opening line and see both what works and what doesn’t. To begin, we’ll look at the opening line from my first novel, Between Heaven and Hell.
It was a bright and sunny day in Washington DC, and Daniel Cho found himself at the scene of an accident.
What’s wrong with this? So many things. (In my defense, it was 13 years ago, I was young and I needed the money.) First off, it’s a weather report.
Do not start the story with weather. It’s a rookie mistake, and it makes you look like a rube. Any mention at all of the weather in the opening line pegs you as just one notch beyond “It was a dark and stormy night.” or “The night was humid.” Setting is important, sure, and there are lots of ways to establish that in a paragraph or two, but it’s pretty low priority for your opening line. Opening lines need to do four things:
- Establish character.
- Establish conflict, or if you prefer, dramatic tension (no, you don’t have to start with a fight scene just because people say conflict).
- Set the narrative tone or voice for the story.
- Broadly establish the setting or genre of the story.
Technically, the line above meets all four of those criteria, but it does so in a very clumsy way, throwing the setting in your face and pushing the conflict back to almost an afterthought. What kind of accident? Did somebody spill peanuts in aisle nine, or did a jetliner crash into the Capitol dome (remember folks, Tom Clancy did it long before al Qaida took a crack at it)? The stuff that should be direct is vague and the stuff that should be vague is direct. Definite room for improvement.
Here’s the first line from a rewrite I attempted in 2007.
Daniel had just stepped out of the 7-Eleven when he heard the crash, his pistachio ice cream already melting in the heat.
Better, but not perfect. We’ve got an extra detail, the ice cream melting in the heat, that tells us something about where Daniel is without mentioning the weather directly. But we still have an indirect tense (“had just” are unnecessary words and warning signs about your writing) that removes Daniel and his perceptions from the action. The tone is thus still tentative. We also don’t know much about the crash, although that is more specific than “accident.” We’re still not sure how much we should care.
Daniel Cho stepped out of the 7-Eleven and heard the unmistakable collision of steel on steel.
This is simple, direct and yet manages to tell us several useful things. We know our character’s name, where he is (broadly, we know he’s in a modern urban setting where one might find a 7-Eleven; this isn’t medieval fantasy or outer space) and that to him, the sound of steel colliding with steel is unmistakable, giving us a hint at his background or profession (as it turns out, and as we’ll see in the next few paragraphs, Daniel is a paramedic in Washington DC). This line is the shortest of the three, and yet it’s the most powerful. It’s powerful in large part because it’s simple, because it doesn’t beat around the bush and gets right to the action. We know there’s violence afoot, and we know that Daniel is going to react to it. We’re hooked and ready to see what happens next.