The Opening Line – is it all Shock and Awe?

I recently attended a writing workshop ‘Write to Win‘  The first exercise was a challenged to write an opening sentence and then the workshop leaders chose the best of the group.

I wrote about a man picking his teeth with a knife, looking down over what had been a dry canyon a week before but now was lush tropical rain forest. I lost to someone who wrote about sleeping with the brother of the love of her life. The winner was a great opening line, definitely got your attention and engaged the imagination. Indeed, it had shock value.

The part I found frustrating about the exercise was that the instructors did not explain in great, lengthy, analytical detail why the winners were the winners. And while this was indeed their point, and quite realistic, it frustrated me, the scientist.

But it did inspire me, the writer, to do a couple of things. One was to look at a short story I had recently written and realize that I needed to move my hook from the fourth sentence to the first one. This is my new opening line:

Arianna strode through the old growth forest, the palm of her free hand brushing against the slender saplings that lined the path, wondering if she had the nerve to deliver the gift for Daniel grasped in her other hand.

I also grabbed a bunch of great stories to look at the opening line. Ok, I have to admit the scientist had an influence here – analysis, statistics, categorization – a girl can only stretch so far from her roots before she snaps back to draw on her natural sources of energy.

The opening line from my favourite book of all time (Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul):

‘It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression “as pretty as an airport.”

I read it, I laugh. It sets the tone for the book and is quintessential Douglas Adams – a simple truth that he makes sound humorous. I relate. I have visited quite a number of airports and can attest to the fact that they smell bad -of sweat, jet fuel, and tarry coffee, have bad acoustics, bad lighting, and are full of people going in random directions at random speeds. Unpleasant things happen to you at airports such as waiting in lines, having your underwear examined by stern men and then boarding a long metal tube to be hurled through the frigid sky.

Adams’ line sets up one of the plot and characters, not to mention the first scene in the book. And there’s more. The line also gives us a sense of place and time (Earth and sometime after routine air-travel began. For those of you who don’t read speculative fiction, Earth as a setting may not seem informative, but when you read stories set any time from when the big bang occurred to tens of thousands of years into the future, or in an completely made up alternative world, Earth, now-ish is saying a lot. )

Let’s try another one. From Tom Holt’s Blonde Bombshell, which I recently reviewed, the opening line is:

‘On a planet where a dog’s best friend is man, the director of the Institute for Interstellar Exploration is taking Spot for a walk.’

I read it, I grin. I like the sense of irony. And it tells me about an advanced alien race. It’s also very accessible, most of us can relate to taking our pets for a walk. A good set up of a story about a dog-like race with an agenda that involves humans.

From my survey of about twenty different books and a few short stories, I see the following as elements of a good opening sentence:

  • Irony – I suspect this has more to do with my taste in reading material than anything else, but that’s still relevant. We all have different preferences.
  • Why? – the opening sentence makes me ask why the situation has come about
  • What? – I am drawn to opening sentences with reference to things I don’t know about, things I can learn more about
  • Atmosphere – haunting, brooding scenes foreshadow action
  • Action – the story is starting in the middle of a SITUATION

What have I learned?

  1.  Some of my opening sentences need to be rewritten.
  2.  Write opening sentences that reflect your style.

Here are a couple of my openers that I am proud of:

From Odds of the Gods: 

‘Brigit’s skin prickled. There was danger in the words she had just uttered to the shopkeeper.’

From a new novel I have just started, called, The Green, Green Grass of Greed:

“The mark should have been here five minutes ago,” Stephan said, wincing at the yellowberry liquor set before him in an ooze-smudged shot glass.

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