Crafting the Opening of Your Story

Many of my blog posts start with my writing issues. What does good story structure look like? What am I supposed to do about theme? How do I write a villain that's not cliche? How do I write a grabber of an opening? The last is what I've been thinking about lately, so that's what this post is about.

Going to the Movies: A Personal Journey Through Four Decades of Modern FilmSyd Field says in his book Going to the Movies: "…there are two  ways to begin a story: one, with a dynamic action sequence like Peckinpah does in The Wild Bunch; or two, with a strong character scene like Robert Towne does in Chinatown. Both work effectively within the context of the story. An action sequence grabs me immediately and pulls me into the world of the movie. A strong character scene creates an emotional dynamic and carries me into the heart of the story through the point of view of the main character."

Like many writers, I have a hard time finding the right opening. In order to know what makes a good opening, I’ve been perusing the books on my shelves, hoping that seeing a concentration of strong openings might help me see what I’m missing. Maybe even change the frequency my brain is cycling on until I find that corner where all those killer openings are hiding.

When considering great openings, one of the best has to be from the classic, A Tale of Two Cities. It is, in my estimation, one of the most beautiful openings ever written.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
          -- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens 

If you’ve never read it, and it sounds a bit familiar, the series Babylon 5 used an opening one season that borrowed heavily (and effectively) from this structure. Which proves what T.S. Eliot said: Mediocre writers borrow, great writers steal.

This opening has a bit of the same feel to it.

I sell mayhem, scandal, murder, and doom. Oh Jesus I do, I sell tragedy, vengeance, chaos and fate. I sell the sufferings of the poor and vanities of the rich. Children falling from windows, subway trains afire, rapists fleeing into the dark. I sell anger and redemption. I sell the muscled heroism and firemen and the wheezing greed of mob bosses. The stench of garbage, the rattle of gold. I sell black to white, white to black. To Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Muslims and transvestites and squatters on the Lower East Side. I sold John Gotti and O. J. Simpson and the bombers of the World Trade Center and I'll sell whoever else comes along next. I sell falsehood and what passes for truth and every gradation in between. I sell the newborn and the dead. I sell the wretched, magnificent city of New York back to its people. I sell newspapers.
          -- Manhattan Nocturne by Colin Harrison

The odds of me coming up with something that breathtaking? Not good.

Besides, I don’t have a lot of Dickens on my shelves. I lean more toward genre fiction, but just because it doesn’t get the respect that “literature” does, doesn’t mean that these authors don’t know a thing or three about how to grab a reader from the first line.

I thought I’d share some of the opening lines that impressed me and made me want to emulate my favorite authors.

In putting these together, I noticed some interesting patterns. See if you see the same things I do.

In Spring, three things came invariably to the house of the King of An: the year's first shipment of Herun wine, the lords of the Three Portions for the spring council, and an argument.
          -- Heir of Sea and Fire by Patricia A. McKillip

Had the Icefalcon still been living among the Talking Stars People, the penalty for not recognizing the old man he encountered in the clearing by the four elm trees would have been the removal of his eyes, tongue, liver, heart and brain, in that order.
          ---Icefalcon's Quest by Barbara Hambly

Sophie Dempsey didn’t like Temptation even before the Garveys smashed into her ’86 Civic, broke her sister’s sunglasses, and confirmed all her worst suspicions about people from small towns who drove beige Cadillacs.
          --Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie

Myron lay sprawled next to a knee-knockingly gorgeous brunette clad only in a Class-B-felony bikini, a tropical drink sans umbrella in one hand, the aqua clear Caribbean water lapping at his feet, the sand a dazzling white powder, the sky a pure blue that could only be God's blank canvas, the sun a soothing and rich as a Swedish masseur with a snifter of cognac, and he was intensely miserable.
           --The Final Detail by Harlan Coben

Do you see it? Lists, if they’re specific enough, can be intriguing in themselves. Especially if they end with a little twist.

Some openings have a quiet, every day tone that’s at odds with an extraordinary observation.

It is a pain in the ass waiting around for someone to try to kill you.
      --Trumps of Doom (book #1 of the second chronicles of Amber) by Roger Zelazny 

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.
   --A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

I suppose that my mother could have been a witch if she had chosen to.
      --Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

Often it’s simply that the opening statement brings a question with it. Why? How? What news? What profession? What thing?

I was aware of eyes, watching me.
     --Daughter of the Lion by Jennifer Roberson

I knew opening that red door would destroy my life.
     --Caught (prologue) by Harlan Coben

A caller who wakes you in the small dark silent hours is unlikely to be a bringer of good news.
     --Hope by Len Deighton

Obeying professional habits, Savage directed the elevator toward the floor below the one he wanted.
    --The Fifth Profession by David Morrell

It is a curious thing, but when I told Berren tonight, he said nothing for long moments, then all he wanted to know was why had I not told him sooner.
    --The First Book of the Painter: The Boy from the Burren (forward) by Sheila Gilluly

Ryan Perry did not know that something in him was broken.
    --Your Heart Belongs to Me by Dean Koontz

Some of my favorites start with a simple statement then a second sentence stands the image on its head.

He walked out of the cottage and into the night.
He was stark naked.
    --The Reincarnation of Peter Proud by Max Ehrlich

He was dead. However, his nose throbbed painfully, which he thought odd in the circumstances.
    --Voyager (book 3 of the Outlander series) by Diana Gabaldon

Devon Hamilton-Zemaitis was a beautiful woman. Being dead didn't change that.
    --Not Another Bad Date (prologue) by Rachel Gibson

 Roxanne Archer designed her strategy like a four-star general—or a stalker
    --Good Time Girl by Candace Schuler 
The worst thing about knowing that Gary Fairchild had been dead for a month was seeing him every day at work.
    --The Silicone Mage (book 2 of The Windrose Chronicles) by Barbara Hambly (my personal all-time favorite)

Even when it doesn’t completely turn the opening sentence on its head, something unexpected in the opening can grab you. The way that unexpected turn is handled is a strong indicator of the author’s voice.

Dragonsbane, they called him.
Slayer of dragons.
Or a dragon, anyway. And, he'd later found out, not such a very big one at that.
     --Dragonshadow (book 2 of the Winterlands series) by Barbara Hambly

   "Kiss me, babe."
   "No, really." Beneath the light of a sixty-watt bulb on her porch, Adele Harris placed a hand on the chest of her latest date. "I've had enough excitement for one night."
    --Not Another Bad Date (chapter 1)by Rachel Gibson

The first time Clare Wingate found herself in a strange bed, she'd been twenty-one, the victim of a bad breakup and too many Jell-O shooters.
    --I'm in No Mood For Love by Rachel Gibson

When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter.
    --No Second Chance by Harlan Coben

If the other novice wizards on the row hadn't broken into Raeshaldis's rooms, pissed on her bed and written WHORE and THIEF on the walls, she probably would have been killed on the night of the full moon.
    --Sisters of the Raven by Barbara Hambly

It was at the fair of Bhaile ap Boreen one year that my father sold me into slavery.
    --The First Book of the Painter: The Boy from the Burren (chapter One) by Sheila Gilluly

She undressed slowly, dreamily, and when she was naked, she selected a bright red negligee to wear so that the blood would not show.
    --If Tomorrow Comes by Sidney Sheldon

This is a thing I've learned: Even with a gun to my head, I am capable of being convulsed with laughter.
    --Relentless by Dean Koontz

In my experience, true wordsmiths are a rarity in nature, so I suppose, it shouldn’t be a surprise that an opening that could only have been written by a wordsmith is uncommon in my library.

Summer here comes on like a zaftig hippie chick, jazzed on chlorophyll and flinging fistfuls of butterflies to the sun.
    --Population:485 by Michael Perry

Then there’s the opening that makes us ask, “what would I do in such circumstances?” We read to see what the character does. Perhaps to store the idea for ourselves. Just in case.

I am a stranger in a strange town, and the man standing beside me has just removed his pants. There are mitigating factors—he is well-kempt, we are in a laundromat, and as a registered nurse, I have seen this sort of thing before—but they fail to completely dissipate the tension inherent in sharing close quarters with a pantless stranger.
    --Truck: A Love Story by Michael Perry

The missing girl—there had been unceasing news reports, always flashing to that achingly ordinary school portrait of the vanished teen, you know the one, with the rainbow-swirl background, the girl's hair too straight, her smile too self-conscious, then a quick cut to the worried parents on the front lawn, microphones surrounding them, Mom silently tearful, Dad reading a statement with quivering lip—that girl, that missing girl had just walked past Edna Skylar.
    --Promise Me by Harlan Coben

Sometimes simple statements hit just the right note.

Scott Duncan sat across from the killer.
    --Just One Look by Harlan Coben

Murad stood in the deep black shadows, listening to the prisoner's screams, watching the Anatolian.
    --The Devil's Spy by Michael Hastings

They don’t necessarily have to be that dramatic to resonate.

I met him in a street called Straight.
    --The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart

She recognized him. He was wearing the blue coverall of a Bulgarian common laborer, but she recognized him nonetheless. 
   --Message from Absalom by Anne Armstrong Thompson

Something about relating an event to a specific time makes it a little extra intriguing.

One minute before the explosion, the square at Sainte-Cecile was at peace.
   --Jackdaws by Ken Follett

The day Kevin Tucker nearly killed her, Molly Somerville swore off unrequited love forever.
   --This Heart of Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Rachel Farris came speeding down the dusky two-lane highway toward Destiny just as fast as she'd left town almost fifteen years ago.
   --Sugar Creek by Toni Blake

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.
   The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini 

The night before Virgil Duffy's funeral, a storm pounded the Puget Sound.
   --True Love and Other Disasters by Rachel Gibson

An hour before his world exploded like a ripe tomato under a stiletto heel, Myron bit into a fresh pastry that tasted suspiciously like urinal cake.
   -- Darkest Fear by Harlan Coben

Some people will tell you not to open with dialog, but that, IMO, is just a knee-jerk repetition of some idiot-rule they heard somewhere and adopted.  If the dialog is intriguing, it works for me.

"From now on, Blakestone, you'll just have to watch her like a bloody hawk."
    -- Marry the Man Today by Linda Needham

"Brett Rensselaer, you are a ruthless bastard."
   -- Spy Sinker by Len Deighton

Sometimes it takes more than just a line or two. Some openings set the hook gently, each consecutive sentence nudging that hook in more deeply, until it sneaks up on you, that realization that you risk staying up until three in the morning finishing this book. These strike me that way and what hooks here is, in large part, the author's voice.

There should have been a dark whisper in the wind. Or maybe a deep chill in the bone. Something. An ethereal song only Elizabeth or I could hear. A tightness in the air. Some textbook premonition. There are misfortunes we almost expect in life—what happened to my parents, for example—and then there are other dark moments, moments of sudden violence that alter everything. There was my life before the tragedy. There is my life now. The two have very little in common.
    -- Tell No One by Harlan Coben

I was sitting at the bar of the Hegira that night when Ginny came in. The barkeep, an ancient sad-eyed patriarch named Jose, had just poured me another drink, and I was having one of those rare moments any serious drunk can tell you about. A piece of real quiet. Jose's cheeks bristled because he didn't shave very often, and his apron was dingy because it didn't get washed very often, and his fingernails had little crescents of grime under them. The glass he poured for me wasn't all that clean. But the stuff he poured was golden-amber and beautiful, like distilled sunlight, and it made the whole place soothing as sleep—which drunks know how to value because they don't get much of it.
    -- The Man Who Killed His Brother by Stephen R Donaldson

  The story of Terisa and Geraden began very much like a fable. She was a princess in a high tower. He was a hero come to rescue her. She was the only daughter of wealth and power. He was the seventh son of the lord of the seventh Care. She was beautiful from the auburn hair that crowned her head to the tips of her white toes. He was handsome and courageous. She was held prisoner by enchantment. He was a fearless breaker of enchantments.
  As in all the fables, they were made for each other.
    -- The Mirror of Her Dreams (Prologue) by Stephen R. Donaldson

He stands in the kitchen doorway, a black figure surrounded by the yellow light background, the small details of his face unseen from the darkness of the living room. His left shoulder leans slightly against the threshold, a pistol suspended from the left hand, dangling in the yellow space between the hip and the dark.
    -- Blood and Circumstance by Frank Turner Hollon

Because these are books I know well, transcribing these opening sentences turned into a struggle not to keep on reading, which only proves that opening lines set you up to fall in love.
Which type of openings appeal to you and compel you to read the story? 

Do you have an opening of your own you're especially pleased with?