Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Part 2 -What Makes a Great Opening Line?)

Well crafted prose doesn’t necessarily create great opening lines

This post is the second in a series on what makes any story’s – flash through novel – opening line great. Part 1 provided some background and why opinions only matter if you know enough about a subject to make an informed decision.
Let me know what you think are great opening lines and I’ll include them in the series provided you explain what makes them great.

Where an elegantly crafted sentence doesn’t matter (as much) is with the first, opening line of a story (any length, any genre, fiction). Nancy Ann Dibble (writing as Ansen Dibell) wrote in Plot “…every effective beginning needs to do three things”:

  1. Get the story going and show what kind of story it’s going to be.
  2. Introduce and characterize the protagonist.
  3. Engage the reader’s interest in reading on.

Get past the technical and a great opening line must take the reader into the mythic, specifically the story’s mythic; its setting, plot, characters and so on. At best it’ll propel the reader into the story’s mythic, at the least it’ll invite the reader into the story’s mythic and anything combining those two is over the top good.

A great opening line offers the reader no room for escape, no chance for egress, no opportunity to back away. I state it simply as “You’re either in or you’re out.” A good opening line should either put the reader firmly in the story or leave them at the door, wishing them well, hoping they catch the next train and leaving them to other, more enjoyable journeys.

For them.

Again, subjectivity wins.

When the lights go down you have their attention. – Billy Wilder
Alternately: When they open your book’s cover you have their attention.

Subjectivity (Personal biases)
I know what I like in a story: Give me an interesting character in an interesting situation. The sooner the author does that (aka “a great opening line” and I’ll extend it to paragraphs and first few pages depending on the length of the work) the more likely I am to finish the story.

Rita Mae Brown writes in Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writers’ Manual that today’s readers don’t have the attention span or patience of readers 25, 50 let alone 100 years ago.

I agree with provision. I’ll read a story simply for the power of the writing. Margaret Atwood’s work is an example. The writing in The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, … is beautiful. My god, what style! But not enough happening to keep me going (I did finish them, don’t remember them. Bad sign, that).

Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale and Once Upon a River are incredible reads that kept me going and I do remember them.

Katherine Mansfield‘s work is a study in form and great reading. I can’t say much happens – at least not overtly – but her characters and her writing carry me through to the end.

The first chapter in John Le Carré’s A murder of Quality is nothing but a listing of who’s who in the story (and not even everybody, just the principles. There’s a lot of them). Nothing happens. Well, not exactly. The writing hints at a lot of what’s coming and does it well enough to get the reader to chapter 2 where the real fun begins.

The difference? All four have incredible writing. Atwood’s gets in the way of the story, Setterfield’s, Mansfield’s, and Le Carré’s serve the story.

But powerful writing will only take one so far. Margaret Atwood said that if the author doesn’t know where the story’s going by page 10, the author doesn’t know the story. I’ll offer “If the reader doesn’t know where the story’s going by page 10, they’re not going to be interested in your story” (a nod to Dibble’s three rules for openings above).

So I’ll read a story solely for the power of the writing and the sooner that door into the mythic opens and beckons me through, the better.

If I’ve failed you, Rita, I apologize.

Next up – Great Opening Lines – and Why! Some Great Opening Lines