Since we’re in the opening few days of a brand new year, I thought it might be appropriate to write about opening lines in fiction. Where do we start? How do we go about starting? What do we need to weave into the first few moments of a story in order to orient our readers and also intrigue them enough that they want to carry on reading?
You may be wondering about the title I’ve chosen for this post. It probably isn’t apparent what breaking the shell of a soft-boiled egg has to do with starting a story but I think it’s a good analogy. First, when I have a soft-boiled egg, I want the white to be set and the yolk to be golden and runny. The egg needs to be boiled for the right amount of time. Break open the shell too early and the egg is still raw. Break open the shell too late and the yolk is hard. We need to choose the right moment. Second, when it comes to breaking the shell, there are different methods you might deploy – a swift beheading with a knife, battering the egg with a teaspoon, creating a crack and unpeeling the shell. If you’re too enthusiastic, you risk splattering the egg all over your kitchen table. If you are too cautious, you won’t get inside.
And I think both these points – timing (exactly when to begin) and method (how to go about beginning) – are at the heart of what makes a good story opening.
Where to start
There is an adage about writing fiction that you should arrive late and leave early. Rather than starting with Joe Bloggs getting out of bed and brushing his teeth, start on the precipice of what the story is actually about or already in the middle of the action (in media res). The shorter the story, the less space we have for long-winded introductions that set the scene, introduce the characters, faff about with details that might be forgiven in a longer work. If you’re a writer of flash fiction, this is something you learn by necessity pretty early on because the word count is so limited. But how do we go about identifying that perfect point at which to start?
I always think of this in terms of tension – what is the precise moment from which the tension at the heart of your story derives? In Collapse (Justine Gardner | The Sunlight Press), there is a thump from which the rest of the story grows. We start on the precipice of this (“It was late afternoon, quiet and windless”) and there are moments later in the story that build the world around this initial thump. A decision could have been made to start with the description of where everyone is (“sorting the laundry, scolding the children into silence, reheating meat loaf for an early dinner”) but I feel the impact of the opening would have been lost.
When I’m editing flash fiction or short stories, I often see descriptive openings that build a sense of place / character. This is really important (see below) but often there is a more impactful opening lingering underneath – something active rather than passive / descriptive. In the opening to Hold On Tight To Me (Joy Guo | Smokelong Quarterly), we have a mother scrabbling up the trellis. We’ve arrived straightaway in the story. The description is added in later.
It is worth mentioning at this point that there are no right answers here. If I return to my soft-boiled egg analogy, you might not like a runny yolk, you might not like your white to be firmly set. The best place to start is going to be subjective – different writers / readers will have different preferences. It will also depend on the story being told. There are many different on-points – you might start at the end of the story, you might start in the middle , you might start with effective and evocative description. But wherever you start, I always think it’s worth bearing in mind this quote from Alfred Hitchcock: “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?” – beginning, middle or end, find the things that intrigue and make the reader interested in your story.
How to start
In his article in Short Circuit entitled “Finding Form in Short Fiction”, Graham Mort writes that “the opening lines of a story involve […] tricky decisions for a writer: tense (past, present or future), point of view (authorial, characterised, neutral), the level of intimacy (first, second or third person), whether the point of view is especially privileged or whether it is exterior or interior (commenting on the action or participating in it).” I think we can add to that the need to establish place, characters, tone, themes and tension. That’s a lot to think about and, depending on the story, not all of those elements will be essential – but I think it’s handy to have a checklist.
We could probably craft a very solid opening paragraph that allows one phrase or sentence for each point on that list but a clever writer will find ways of giving that information without the giving of the information being the focus. I really like the opening to Eating Stale Biscuits in the Middle of the Pacific Ocean (Yume Kitasei | Smokelong Quarterly) in terms of how it accomplishes this. We have immediate tension and the opening is active rather than merely descriptive. However, we also learn setting (“the little town”), who the story is about (“Junko”), where this character is (“lying flat on her futon”) and a little about who she is (through the “English tea set and a tin of biscuits that grandma never ate”). Similarly, in Night Circus (Joy Baglio | Pank), the opening is active while also giving a sense of place, character, tension.
I love how the second sentence of “Night Circus” firmly establishes the tone of the piece – and a sense of voice, for me, is another thing that needs establishing as early as possible. How is this piece going to be written? Is this literary or genre fiction? Is it a sad story? Are there flecks of humour here? Another story that sets up tone of voice right from the start is Jerry Under a Pine Tree (Paul Ruta | Cheap Pop). This is a piece where I feel the on-ramp moment has been perfectly chosen – just after the phone call for an ambulance, allowing exactly what has happened to slowly come into focus like a camera zooming out; the mode of storytelling – the conversational tone of voice – provides immediate intrigue; it is unsettling without it being disorientating.
Often, we talk about the need for a hook. In her article on the subject of flash fiction openings, Kathy Fish talks about a dislike of the ‘hook’ terminology and I agree with her. It feels like too violent a word. For me, I prefer thinking about it in terms of intrigue, something that asks a reader to travel this journey with you. That sense of intrigue can be shocking like in The Flat (Michael Alessi | Okay Donkey) but, as I mentioned in my introduction, there is more than one way to break the shell of an egg. Mysterious openings also work well. How about the first line to It’s Only Reflected Light (Virginia Eggerton | Moonpark Review)?
As Kathy Fish explains in her article, we don’t need to start with a bang – “there’s such a thing as a “quiet” opening even in flash fiction.” Sometimes, it’s about finding the subtle sideways shift. Consider the opening to Northern Lights (Tim Craig | Bath Flash Fiction). The first sentence (“After an hour or so, I decided to ask him about the tooth”) is not particularly explosive but in that final word, it sparks a question that a reader wants answered. A similar effect is created by the opening to A Weight of Risks (Tommy Dean | New World Writing) – here, we have a “cracked and bruised” helmet in a “snow plow scored street”. I, as a reader, want to know about that helmet. This opening perhaps goes against my earlier suggestion to infuse an opening sentence with action but I’d argue that there is action in this strong image – it is the action of how the helmet has got here, what has happened just prior to the opening line.
It might be language or tone of voice that creates the intrigue like in “Jerry Under a Pine Tree”. Sometimes, it might be just a single word like in the opening sentence to Crocodile Wife (Kathryn McMahon | Jellyfish Review) where I want to know what exactly is meant by that pairing of “crocodile teeth”.
Other things to consider
Mostly, what I’ve focussed on above has been the first sentence or the first couple of sentences but how long should the opening be? Again, this is something that is going to depend on the particular story and the particular writer, but I tend to think that the opening (the amount of time dedicated to setting up the story) should generally be less than 20% of the overall wordcount – in a 300-word micro, this would give you 60 words to play with but could you aim for 45 or even 30? Whatever figure you go with, even in the shortest of pieces, this does generally mean you have more than one sentence to set your story up.
And sometimes there can be a real benefit to stretching things out. In Strange Fish (Emma Eun-joo Choi | Passages North), the opening sentence is simply “I am nine.” It doesn’t hold a great well-full of intrigue. The second and third sentences establish character and place but again the intrigue of the story is postponed. And then the fourth sentence – “I do not have friends”. This could have been the opening sentence but in trusting us to at least make it to the end of the first paragraph, we've been allowed a glimpse of our narrator and, in knowing that they are only nine years old, this idea of them not having any friends has much more of an impact.
Another thing to consider is the relationship between title and opening. In my previous blog post, I talked about titles and what they can add, especially in flash fiction. Sometimes, they can do a lot of the legwork of setting place, character, tone that I’ve mentioned above. In A Haunted House (Virginia Woolf | Bartleby), the first sentence connects seamlessly with the title – “Whatever hour you woke there was a door shunting” – and I think this is something that can be a great approach.
Finally, a question to ponder at the editing stage. Is your initial opening always the best or does your best opening come only once you’ve written the rest of the story? Sometimes the first draft of a story can be about exploring the story’s world and, to do that in the best way, we have to travel the hinterlands around it – which means we might start too early – do we need the first line, the first paragraph or would it be stronger to start with the second or the third? Does our opening sentence / paragraph contain as many of the points in my checklist above as it could do? How might you weave in one more element to make it even stronger?
I always think the beginning of a story should set up the ending in some way, that there should be a strong connection between the two extremities of the piece as it is laid out on the page. So, taking that into consideration, let’s loop back to my analogy from the introduction – how a story opening is similar to breaking the shell of a soft-boiled egg. However you like your eggs, you need to think about timing and technique. To extend the analogy further, you also want to take into consideration how you want to season your egg (which I guess might be equivalent to setting tone / atmosphere) and what you want to accompany it (this is the part where you introduce characters and viewpoint). It isn’t a perfect analogy but hopefully it works on some level. As I said above, everything to do with writing is subjective so take what you want from this post with a pinch of salt, some pepper, and perhaps just a sprinkling of parsley.
If you enjoy reading this blog then why not sign up to my newsletter so you get it sent straight to your inbox?