Mistakes with story openings and how to write great first lines
In this age when it’s easier than ever to sample the writing online (and with so many choices available to readers), it’s more important than ever to ensure you don’t lose a sale simply because your opening lacks enticement.
In this post I’m going to share two short YouTube video links. My approach here will be first to summarize each and to entice you to watch the entire videos (8 minutes and 16 minutes respectively), which I supply the link to at the end of my introduction to each.
The first video deals with seven mistakes inexperienced writers may make. Some of these you’ve likely heard before. The video explains why each of these is inherently bad and should be avoided. However, it also notes that there can be exceptions, but those exceptions should be RARE. And they should contain something powerful enough to nullify the problem of using that type of opening. I’ve added some comments on each, but the video explains more.
(1) Don’t open with the character dreaming
Rarely a good idea because it will likely disappoint the reader to discover that your great opening was just a dream. It comes off as if you lied to or tried to trick the reader.
(2) Don’t open with the character waking up
Even if you feel that waking up is an intriguing experience for you as a person, having your character wake up to start off your story will likely be mundane and boring to the reader. And it tends to be a cliché opening. A RARE exception would be if the character wakes up under an unusual or intriguing circumstance. For example:
“When Kal awoke, he’d been asleep for one hundred and fifty years.”
If it’s really important to have your character waking up from a dream, then it’s best not to mislead the reader into thinking the opening action is real when it isn’t. Have the character awaken suddenly and know he was dreaming or maybe be unsure if it was a dream. Or have the character wake up in a completely unfamiliar environment from the one he fell asleep in. Even then, opening with a character waking up is almost always a poor writing technique.
(3) Don’t start with the character in a hospital
(4) Don’t open with too much intensity
You don‘t want to overwhelm the reader too quickly at the start.
(5) Don’t do rapid POV switches in opening pages
This is almost never a good idea because it disorients the reader by shifting attention among several characters. Exceptions? I can’t think of any good ones offhand.
(6) Too many character names (or terms) in the opening pages
Inundating the reader with names or terms (such as in a fantasy or sci-fi setting) is the best way to confuse and turn off a reader.
(7) Too much telling of the setting in the beginning.
Too many new writers believe it’s important to set the scene before starting the action and conflict. Nothing is further from the truth. You should open with and focus on the character IN the setting instead of on the setting itself.
The video link goes into more detail on these.
HOW TO WRITE A GOOD FIRST LINE
You might think that great opening lines are hard to come by, but I believe that few novice writers take the time to consider their all-important first line.
Stephen King advises, “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
That’s a great quote found at the end of the second video. I won’t go into much detail because the video does a far better job. It contains the following excellent advice in the beginning:
“The first line of a story should create a sense of character, conflict, setting, mood, theme, or style—or any combination thereof. Most importantly, it should make the reader ask questions.”
From there the narrator delves into great opening lines based on one or more possible ingredients:
QUESTION, CHARACTER, IMAGERY, THEME
Here are many of the opening lines presented in the video, which tells where each of these came from. You might even be familiar with some. Look these over, then watch the video.
But as the video says at the end, it’s not necessary to have a memorable or enticing opening line. Lots of novels have forgettable opening lines, but consider how much a strong one would improve the chances of your reader wanting to continue.
Here are many of the enticing opening lines presented in the video.
“I lost an arm on my last trip home.”
“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”
“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.”
“The first thing I did was, I stole a body.”
“He wakes to the sound of sirens.”
“The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.”
“Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest.”
“All children, except one, grow up.”
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all the David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
“Daisy wore a clingy black dress with a neckline so deep it could tutor philosophy.”
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.”
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
And here’s the link to that video:
HOW TO WRITE A GOOD FIRST LINE