Writing Story Openings

Writing Your Story’s Opening

A great opening is one of writing’s biggest challenges. Some call it the “hook,” the “lead” or other terms, but one thing is certain: without a great opening line, it’s much harder to keep readers reading.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are a few simple tips to boost your writing’s openings:

Set the Tone

In your opening, you set the tone and voice for the entire story. If it’s a deadly serious story, you don’t open with a wisecrack, unless it’s comic relief. To writers, Tone means the attitude the story takes—dramatic, comedic, tragic, romantic, fantastic, horror, etc. Voice refers to both the characteristics a writer brings to the work and also the particular character readers will follow. One common mistake that writers make is to be inconsistent with tone and voice within one story. Because novels are usually written over a long period, it’s easy to mix tones or to write unevenly as the writer learns and grows. I still say go ahead and write your draft—even with these tone/voice changes. But in revisions (notice the plural!), you can go back and smooth any bumps. In revisions, you might also want to get feedback from beta readers or critique partners, who may spot these differences more readily.

And here’s a news flash: Many times, your opening lines can be the last things you write. By the time you get to the story’s resolution, the whole premise may have shifted. It’s not uncommon to rewrite the opening, or to find it languishing in Chapter Two. When you settle on an opening, be sure it not only sets the story’s tone, but that it hints at the larger story. Some writers open with a simple description of what the character is doing at that moment: EX: She sat on the front porch. But unless we get a foretaste of the goals, obstacles and conflict in the story, readers may not care about the porch sitter.

Promise Me

You may have heard that a story is a promise. You, the writer, promise the reader a certain story. This promise is made in your opening and you must deliver on that promise by story’s end. If you create an opening that “hooks” readers—that is, piques their curiosity, empathy or other feelings—you must not let them down. The story promise (see more about it here) is integral to your writing and it happens in three phases. First, the promise is at least hinted at in the opening. It is developed in the body of the story with ever-rising tension. Last, the promise from the opening satisfies the reader’s expectations. Here’s another page about openings.

Sounds like the Three Act Structure, doesn’t it? In the story opening, you write as if you’re a carnival barker. You promise readers that if they pay and play, you’ll deliver the bearded woman or the giant. If you write, “The new puppy saved a marriage,” but in the end the marriage falls apart, readers could feel cheated. When you craft your opening, stick to your promises. Be honest with readers.

Care for Me

The most important task of any opening is to force readers to care. They must care enough to find out what happens to the character. Some call this likability, but some characters aren’t very likable. Still, your best bet to make readers care for a character is to write so that they empathize or at least sympathize. I’ve written before that emotions are the key to writing stories readers can’t put down. Your opening should showcase your character’s outlook on life.

The more deeply you write the emotions, the better the chance that readers will be hooked. This is not to say you should write flowery prose—most of the time, less is more. But as you write your story’s opening, consider the emotions that readers will experience. Whether it’s compassion, indignation, shock or sorrow, strong emotions, a daring promise and an even tone all work to hook readers and keep them turning pages.

What are some of your favorite opening lines?

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

6 comments on “Writing Story Openings

  1. Love this! Very helpful info.
    Here are a few of my favorite first lines.

    From “The Invisible Man” by Ellison:
    “I am an invisible man.’
    Wow! Want to read that 🙂
    From “Who is Harrison Sawyer” by Gansky:
    ‘Harrison Sawyer didn’t sleep the night he died.’
    From “The Sin Eater” by Francine Rivers
    “The first time I saw the sin eater was the night Granny Forbes was carried to her grave.”

  2. I’m trying something that might backfire, or not, we’ll see.At the very beginning the protagonist is careless and not exactly likable. He’s egotistic and removed from reality. He’s also broken into tiny pieces. In the first dozen pages I want the reader to shake their head at this guy.

    I’ve never approached a story in this way. I’m not sure if it’ll work out or not but I have to at least say that I did it.

  3. Bryan,
    The challenge for any writer of fiction is to manage readers so they can’t stop reading. You must make them care enough about the guy early on even if he’s less than likable. Tall order, but I hope you succeed!
    Keep Writing,
    Linda

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