From First Word to Last, Part 1: Beginnings

Opening lines are touted as some of the most important of a story. How-To books and author blogs tell us to engage, captivate, immerse, excite—and to stop at nothing less. But what is the secret to an amazing story opening? Why do stories seem to succeed or fail on page one?

In the Beginning

Let’s be honest, stories open in different ways. Sometimes the focus leans toward the character’s feelings and thoughts, or their background; sometimes the plot and conflict are the majority of what’s going on; and sometimes the setting is extra special, becoming the focal point of the story’s opening. But in the most basic terms available, a story begins with a character…doing something…somewhere.

I think of the “who, what (including a why), and where” as the three legs of a stool, because a stool works on even a bumpy surface, or if one leg is slightly shorter or longer (like most stories). Regardless of what is most prominently featured, the balance created by three legs working together helps a reader feel immersed and interested in what is going on.

Sometimes writers want to create a mystery by intentionally leaving one of those elements out. Perhaps the character has amnesia and doesn’t know who he is…or he awakes in a place he doesn’t recognize. Those things can work…but it’s rare, because to compensate for one missing leg, the stool’s other two need to be made much more stable. Think…bench, or desk. It’s a hard way to engage readers, but it’s possible to do as long as you can dredge up some context that means something to a reader.

Another problem occurs when a character isn’t really doing anything (which is more common than you’d think). If a character begins his story in a bland way, he comes off as a bland person, and therefore, lacks engagement. Maybe he’s thinking about himself or his background, or where he is (geographically, or in life). Maybe he’s doing some generic task until he eventually meets a person who will begin the adventure. In general, leaving out the doing something part of the first scene is a quick immersion killer.

To engage a reader, an opening scene should convey the character’s scene goal, give insight into who they are, and hint at the story’s theme as it relates to the character. Each word in the first scene matters, and selecting the right words can hook a reader, coaxing them to keep turning pages.

The Hook

Sometimes when we talk about an opening, we say a story needs a hook. Without a hook, a reader doesn’t feel engaged. For me, the hook is an essential part of my outlining process. I pay careful attention to my first line, my first paragraph, and my first page, editing and tweaking until I’m sure I have plenty of bait out there to tempt a reader to bite.

Simply put, the hook is what gets your reader to keep reading. It, therefore, cannot be found on page ten, or page five, or even page three. A proper hook is on page one, and the following five or ten pages are the line and sinker (to keep with the fishing reference).

A hook is a line of narrative that elicits a reaction from a reader. Specifically, it gets them to ask a question. And the need to find the answer is what drives them to turn the next five or ten pages. Why is she hiding from her mother? Who is following the man with the limp…and why does he limp? What’s going to happen when the sun sets?

Great hooks are two things—simple, and early. Openings that do a wide pan or take too long to introduce the character or their current situation often fail to engage even when they have a solid hook…because the reader is already bored or confused by the time they get to it. That’s why the best hooks are found right up front, in scenes that start in motion. No history lessons, no wide angle shots of the town, just a character…doing something…somewhere.

First Scene

In medias res. It means in the middle. That’s where you want your scene to start. Not in the middle of a car exploding, or in the middle of a person falling to their death—those are too dramatic and would lack context unless handled expertly. Instead, a great opening scene starts in the middle of a sequence of events. For example, one of my favorite books starts with a mother and daughter polishing silverware. Pretty dull sounding, huh? But it’s a great scene because before the scene opened, the mother received a distressing letter that reveals bad news for the daughter. So, during the middle of the household chores, while the daughter is talking about what she’d like to do with her summer…the mother bursts out and says none of it can happen. And the scene ends right after the daughter’s reaction, rather than carrying on into a long conversation.

Some people call it “in late, out early” and I think that’s a good way to look at it. The example scene entered after the backstory which led to the letter, stayed for the information revealed during the introduction of the character…doing something…somewhere that set up the reader’s view of her world, and left before the scene or conversation got boring or diluted.

Your opening scene should pull double duty with each word because readers have a lot of other “Look Insides” to view, and they want to choose something special…a story that dares to make a promise right up front.

First Impression

An opening scene is the first place a reader meets your character. First impressions are even more important in a story than in real life, because in real life we feel social pressure to not be rude. There is no societal repercussion for closing the cover on a character.

Make sure your character and his first meeting with the reader goes well by planning an excellent first scene. Incorporate setting, plot, and character with balance in mind. You only get one chance to make a first impression and set your readers expectations, so make it count.

What do you think makes a story succeed on page one?

What do you think makes a story fail on page one?

Have a great hook? Let’s hear your opening lines!

Part 2 in this series addresses how to write endings.

A. Howitt

A. Howitt lives in a three bedroom home with a husband and four kids, and desperately wants to get a dog. A writer since 2001, she developed a taste for reading when she found the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and quickly fell in love with fantasy stories.

Her hobbies include sewing, gardening, sword-fighting, costuming, archery, dancing, and being outdoors, and as a lifelong artist, she's been competing in art contests off and on for more than a decade, and has been shown in the Columbus Museum of Art.
A. Howitt

Latest posts by A. Howitt (see all)

5
Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Rodrigo
Member
Rodrigo

What do you think of starting with a past event that happened on the characters life or a future event of the main story? And I’ve always wandered that prologues are only necessary if it works as a hook to the main arc or story you’re going to talk about in your book, right?

Maker of Things Not Kings
Member
Maker of Things Not Kings

It took me years to realize that those first lines/scenes often came along and take final form after I'd written much of the rest of the story. I've been a big fan of working backwards of late, knowing where my story ends and then finding my way to the beginning of the tale and each character arc. I've crafted dozens of first lines and paragraphs for everything I have ever written and in the end, no matter how much I liked them at the time, they changed.

They're so much fun to come up with though.

> What do you think makes a story succeed on page one?

At their best, first pages offer a succession of well thought out lines and paragraphs that give us the setting/world, the main character(s), the genre and the tone, and they kept us asking questions. Prologues are often the subject of a lot of debate but, for me, they're fine so long as chapter one is just as appealing/attention getting when it does begin.

You've nailed most of it in the blog. Personally, I'm not a fan of high action from the word go (unless that truly is the everyday world of the character) Something subtler and less frantic to welcome me in is more appealing.

Off the top of my head is Victoria Schwab's understated opening line from 'Darker Shade of Magic', "Kell wore a very peculiar coat."

It's all there in six words: our main character, action ( I assume if Kell has a need to wear a peculiar coat, theres a reason for it and I'll find out what that is soon) and it gets me asking the questions. . . how is the coat peculiar? what is he doing? Where is he? All of which are answered in rapid succession in the lines that follow.

A great first page can also set up a quick and unexpected twist. Who thought chapter one of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card would conclude for the main character as it did after reading page one?

> What do you think makes a story fail on page one?

By the end of page one, you should be able to answer the who (main character) and have some sense of the what (scene goal/action) when (setting/time of day etc) where (scene location) and why (some hint at the character's motivation). Usually when I am stuck, I download the samples of dozens of books on Kindle or go to the library and read just their first pages. If, regardless of genre, it makes me want to continue through the chapter, (and this happens even in genres I never read) I know there is something in that first page I should be looking at as a writer.

In the example I gave above, the coat is not only peculiar, it's important! It better be. I don't want to hear about clothing right off unless it truly matters. So many of us love describing the clothing, (we've invested time in dressing these characters after all) but often it comes with little thought as to why they are wearing what they have on or if it's important enough to include. It should matter. Climate, social engagement, combat etc. if it isn't part of the scene/story, it's not needed. This is especially true on page one.

> Have a great hook? Let’s hear your opening lines!

So, still in progress and since I work from end t beginning, it may change, but here is the original opening line I first thought of for the WIP fantasy novel I'm writing ( it was actually the initial inspiration for the entire tale)

"No one, as far as I can tell, has ever left the Bewildering Pine and returned."

FifthView
Member
FifthView

"Instead, a great opening scene starts in the middle of a sequence of events."

Beyond simply the backstory or a lengthy personal history, a character's "now" at the beginning is really in the middle of a sequence of more recent events. This is the part of the article that struck me most.

So for instance if I start a book with an apprentice mage cleaning the muck from the stable…well, he's there for a reason. Perhaps he's being punished for something that he did the previous day. Perhaps he and his master received notice that the King's retinue would be stopping at their remote inn, for respite from long travels, and he's found himself mucking out a stable that has been neglected for many months, heh.

Either of these two scenarios could also introduce some hints about the main story, whether plot or character arc or both. Would we need to first have a scene with the apprentice doing something bad (on the previous day) and then being told to muck out the stable? Would we need to first have the apprentice and his master sitting at a late breakfast, receiving a surprise messenger who tells them the King will be stopping by tomorrow? No, probably not, and starting in the middle of this sequence of events can introduce questions for the reader, hooking the reader into a mode of discovery about what's happening.

Caged Maiden

Thanks for your comment! Yeppers, "in late, out early" is a great subject, deserving more than a mention, but it's probably a whole long article all on its own. Glad you enjoyed the article. Totally agree the starting point is a tough thing to pick.

When I write, I try to start in the now, whatever the character is doing at this moment, but it just isn't always possible. So, whenever I break the rules a little, I try to do so when it'll have the most impact and do the work I really need it to do. For example, my current story begins with a flashback, which I know isn't recommended, but it's integral to the whole book and the book after, as well. The message is right up front, a look at the character's past, and one bit of advice she got as a girl…that will follow her throughout her life and form the major theme of the entire story.

So…yes, history exists, and sometimes all you can do it pick the most important bit of history to show up front, and then let the rest of it enter the story when it's most important to the story context.

Thanks!

FifthView
Member
FifthView

I enjoyed this article.

“In late, out early” has a little more depth and significance than what you’ve written here—but in this context, it’s also great. Making worlds and characters feel real requires giving the impression they both existed before the story starts. The issue is like the problem with starting a written history, say of the Roman Empire or the American Revolution. Where do you start? With every starting point, there’s a wealth of info, events, personalities that came before and greatly affected that starting point, so maybe you should start the history earlier? But that could go back and back forever. In fiction, going back too far will often sap the energy of the present experience for the reader, but giving the impression that there was a “before” is also very good. The character didn’t just spring into existence at the beginning of the first page. The character and world are in the midst of an ongoing stream of history; particularly, the character is in the midst of a personal history, and her present will have been greatly affected by what has occurred before the start of the story.

Greybeard
Guest
Greybeard

What are your thoughts on opening a book with a prologue? This was once common in fantasy literature, but appears to be out of fashion.

This site uses XenWord.