MANUSCRIPT MUSINGS: On Opening Lines

We get so many fantastic openings here in 34 Orchard’s inbox, openings that seize our hands and pull us through that short story without letting go.

We also get openings that aren’t compelling, and we do see common threads in these openers. Here’s some of what we’ve learned, in case you might find it helpful in strengthening your own work.

Please note that none of the examples given are from real submissions. We drank wine and made these up. Any resemblance to anything we’ve gotten in our inbox is purely coincidental, and nor are we suggesting that the “stronger” examples are the greatest things ever written. They’re just for the purposes of illustration.

The Fatal Five

Door: A door knock or door bell

Dream: A dream sequence

Alarm: An alarm going off/character waking up

Mirror: A character looking in a mirror

Phone: A phone ringing or a text message

These aren’t the best choices because they happen in every day life—all the time—so there’s just not much pull. Dream sequences and mirror-peering always tend to feel forced—purely as a means of communicating information to the reader that could be spooled out in a way that forwards the action instead.

Weaker:

Alicia stared at her brown messy hair in the mirror and knew she was late for work again.

Stronger:

Alicia was sure her brown hair was a tangled mess, but she couldn’t worry about that now as she was late for work—for the fourth time that week.

No Grounding

Something completely vague to the point that we don’t know where we are, who’s speaking, or what’s happening in the world. The opening paragraph shouldn’t be involved and flesh out everything, but we do need to know who’s speaking to us, where that character is in space and time, and the potential conflict. Important details can get meted out in the following paragraphs.

Weaker:

There’s nowhere to buy food. Not since they came and took everything. We’re all going to starve.

Stronger:

There’s nowhere to buy food. Not since the aliens landed and stole every morsel we had. My dad says everyone in the neighborhood’s going to starve, but you know—I’m a typical teen who wants to keep her figure trim, so at the moment, it’s actually convenient. I can’t eat Twinkies if there aren’t any, right?

Untethered Dialogue

Opening with a piece of dialogue can work, but similar to grounding, we need to know who’s talking, where the character is, to whom the character is speaking, and what that character’s relationship is to the person being addressed.

Weaker:

“Where are we?” I asked.

Stronger:

“Where are we?” I was standing on a rocky outcropping.

My boyfriend, Tim, was on his back beside me, rubbing his head as he groaned and struggled to sit up. “Are you okay?”

“I think so.” The long fall had knocked the wind out of me, but there wasn’t anything broken, near as I could tell.

Long Descriptions

We’ve noted grounding is important, but long descriptions can kill the pacing. Readers need to be sucked into the action and conflict as quickly as possible so they can go along for the ride. In real life, beholding a lush landscape is everything it’s supposed to be—tranquil, quiet, peaceful, creepy, unsettling. Light or dark, it’s a moment of rest. Unfortunately, it can have the same effect in an opener—and that doesn’t propel the reader forward. A detailed sentence that’s crafted with a couple of amazing images just to create a quick impression in readers’ minds is all that’s needed. The lush descriptions can be brought in later, and in connection with the action, so the story keeps moving forward.

Weaker:

The woods behind my house, down at the end of a long street with cookie-cutter ranch-style houses, were not only dark and foggy on the deepest of winter nights, in the summer—when everything bloomed lush and green and the fireflies were beginning to emerge, flitting among the trunks so it looked like the woods were aglow with tiny fairies—they were carpeted with reddish-orange mushrooms.

Stronger:

The woods at the end of my street were not a place any of us wanted to be—especially in spring, when they were carpeted with weird mushrooms that were rumored to have caused several deaths.

I lived in a typical neighborhood—cookie-cutter ranch-style houses …

Do you have any favorite opening lines? Do you have any questions about how to improve yours? Is there any topic you’d like us to talk about in future editions of Manuscript Musings? Leave us a note in a comments!

–Kristi

6 thoughts on “MANUSCRIPT MUSINGS: On Opening Lines

  1. I like this first line: “Wind, urgent and powerful, slapped the pane like a wet hand.” The Stone Flowers by Nora O’Keeffe.

    It’d be cool to see a post on why submission format matters. New writers may not know it’s not cool to use weird fonts or purple text, and seasoned writers may appreciate a refresher.

    Like

  2. Kaitlyn Downing

    This is fantastic! I’m sharing this with my creative writing students tomorrow. We just discussed opening lines, but you diplomatically articulate why certain ones aren’t effective. My answer was always ‘they’re cliched, they’re boring’, etc. I like your positive spin on terrible openings.

    Like

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