The first few lines of your story are essential. You have to hook your reader right from the beginning! Questions are your friends. You want your reader curious and asking. But first, ask yourself a few things:
- Why today?
- What incited this incident?
- What is different about today?
What’s so special about the moment of your opening scene? Maybe someone is accepting an award. Maybe a family member just died. Maybe a man stumbled out of a bush, bleeding and wide-eyed, as your MC walked by. Your character’s day started when they woke up, but you don’t need to tell everyone what happened between waking up and the inciting incident. Jump straight to the action! Your MC can talk about the change later while they’re trying to cope with the change.
Sometimes writers start with “a day in the life” sort of vibe, and about a chapter in we arrive at the inciting incident. That’s fine too. Every story is different. Starting with action is typically more exciting, though! Excitement, especially if you’re not 100% sure what’s going on, makes your reader curious.
What’s the Question?
- What genre is the piece?
- What information can your reader glean from the opening lines?
- What timeline pieces are hinted at?
- Where’s the tension?
Your opening bit should make your genre pretty clear, I think. You’ll be using words specific to your genre. For a courtroom drama, words like “the accused man” or “trial,” etc. For fantasy, you might mention a supernatural being. Beyond that, it’s great to start out with a bit of tension. If you put off explanations, readers will keep reading for answers. That said, don’t leave them hanging forever, but you do need to entice them closer! The opening bit is another great time to set your clock. What’s the ultimate goal? Granted, you might not be able to stuff all this information into a few lines—it’ll vary by the story. I’ll have some examples in a bit.
Your readers don’t want to be reading into eternity. Sometimes it helps to set a clock to act as brackets for when the story is and how long it’ll last. They say every story has two: the now and the backstory. Like I asked before, what is the ultimate goal? For example, in a courtroom drama, the NOW clock is the trial. The story starts when the trial starts, and the story ends with the verdict. The backstory clock would be what happened to the defendant or whoever, and how they ended up where they are now. The Now clock is limited; the Backstory clock can be however long you want.
Basically, you want your reader grounded in a few things. Some questions are good, other questions are bad. You don’t want your reader asking logistical questions like where are we, what time period is this, what genre should I expect, what’s the problem, and so on. The good questions are more about the characters and story. Why is she sad? How will he forgive her? Will good prevail?!
And now, keeping all that in mind, I’ll analyze the first paragraph of two different stories so you can see these things in action. It’s not all crazy talk.
"I see," said the vampire, and he walked across the room towards the window. For a long time he stood there against the dim light from the Divisadero Street and the passing beams of traffic. The boy could see the furnishings of the room more clearly now, the round oak table, the chairs. He set his brief case on the table and waited. "But how much tape do you have with you?" asked the vampire, turning now so the boy could see his profile. "Enough for the story of a life?"
—Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire
So to start, we can guess it’s some sort of horror or fantasy genre, since they mention a vampire. It’s also set in a more modern setting, judging by the traffic lights outside. The first few lines also establish a clock. The now clock: the duration of the interview. The backstory clock: the vampire’s life story. Why today? Today is the interview day. What’s the question? Personally, I’m wondering if this vampire and boy can co-inhabit the same space! Will the vampire bite him? The boy doesn’t seem to be uncomfortable or fearful for his life, but why is that? Who is he, and who is the vampire? What’s so special about his life story? This opening also establishes a sort of distanced tone, which I find most curious! Rice only refers to her characters in titles (THE boy, THE vampire)—a very deliberate move on her part. Why is she keeping the names from us? It keeps us in the dark a little longer, and gives us more questions.
Basically, we’ve got the logistics covered. With that framework in mind, we can learn about the characters and the story without distracting questions like if these are like, 15th century vampyres or whatnot.
My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split ups, in chronological order: 1. Alison Ashworth. 2. Penny Hardwick. 3. Jackie Allen. 4. Charlie Nicholson. 5. Sarah Kendrew.
—Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
Genre? We can assume something to do with relationships. Not necessarily a romance novel, per se, since it talks about break-ups, but it does establish some sort of relationship-related story. Why now? It’s not quite as clear as the last opening, but that’s okay—we can still make some assumptions. Maybe he just broke up with someone. Maybe he just met someone new. The now clock? His current relationship, maybe, or the time until he finally succeeds in finding a happy relationship. The backstory clock would be one or a few of his past relationship experiences. What’s the question? Well, it’s strange that he’s listing out the top five, as if he’s actually given thought to his failed relationships. Likely, there have been more than just those five. Why has this guy had so many failed relationships? Will he eventually find happiness? And he said “most memorable” break-ups, and that word choice interests me! Not most heart-breaking? Most depressing? Will we ever learn about these relationships, and why things just didn’t work out?
Your first few lines are essential in starting your story off right! You want to hint at all that’s to come without giving everything away. Give them enough to ask questions. Trust that your readers will make assumptions based on these first bits, and work off of them!
guess what i just got
say hi to kitkat everybody…..