Opening Lines from stories of the last century – why you should master them!

“Frank; what can be more self-inspiring than the opening lines of your own novel?” – I’m not sure I cracked this first time, but here’s how your opening lines can be great if you’re willing to learn from the some of the classical heroes of literature.

All the best first lines in literature are vivid, granting us a clear image which kicks starts the story in a tone that carries us forward.

But how do they do it? What sort of ideas can you use to inject a fist full of Bruce Lee punchiness to your opening lines? Well I’ve got some ideas for you, with examples from my favourite fiction authors in horror, fantasy and adventure fiction, proving that one hundred year old ideas can still be used across genres and in modern writing.

What is a perfect opening line?

The perfect opening lines need to grab us, they need to open their broad arms and tell us that we’re to expect something more, warm arms that wrap around us and make us cosy up to the fact that we’re going on a journey. They may not need to set the tone of the whole story, but they need to grab us and either draw us in with succulent words or punch us in the face and toss us into the inferno.

Your ABCs

Some simple tips for your opening lines:

The most basic step is to name a character. Naming someone makes aspects of the content real for us from the moment we start reading. Got that Frank?

Now that we have named that fellow, it helps to see what they’re doing. Creating an action provides us with the sense of motion of going forward, even if it’s the most mundane action in the world like breathing. Frank, put that coffee down and come over here.

Next, we’re going to dabble in a bit of emotion, ideally something we can all relate to. Since we’re all humans (I guess you may not be?) we all feel, and we want to be sympathetic with the character. Sit down Frank and wipe that stupid grin from your face.

Combining these elements may not give the best or most exciting opening, but many great authors use the same ideas and ramp them up to a magnitude of thousand. We’re going to take a look at how writers tackle their opening lines, some modern and some from nearly a hundred years ago!

Howard's Conan

Here’s a classic example from The Pool of the Black One by Robert Howard, original author of the Conan tales circa 1920s:

“Sancha, once of Kordova, yawned daintily, stretched her supple limbs luxuriously, and composed herself more comfortably on the ermine fringed silk spread on the carrack’s poop-deck.”

In this grandiose opening line, we get a name, a title of sorts then an action followed by a second action and so on. I love this opening line because we get so much in one sentence that there’s no question who we are looking at; a woman with a mysterious background who is at ease and likely familiar with the finer things in life, probably a pirate!

But what if you want to set the tone in more depth?

To really highlight a sense of foreboding some authors use a hindsight perspective. This hindsight gives the reader a sense of time passed and already conjures notions in our mind that we’re to expect more. This perspective makes us ask questions without really giving us enough details. We simply want more. I draw your attention to Herbert West – Reanimator by Lovecraft, from the same era as Robert Howard:

“Of Herbert West, who was my friend in collage and in other life, I can speak only with extreme terror.”

This is a classic opening from Lovecraft which crunches familiar ideas together in a great juxtaposition; ‘friend in collage and other life’ and ‘extreme terror’ are not usual bedfellows. When I first read this line I was a little stunned – what happened to these two friends to invoke such terror?

Lovecraft’s voice here is very formal, we’re probably reading a journal or a confession, but also remarkably relaxed, as if the author has come to terms with whatever happened and reflects on past deeds.

Lovecraft also states these things as facts.

Simple facts, or even complex ones can hammer home the nature of your story. One of the strangest factual opening lines I’ve read, for its mundanity, comes from Dennis Wheatley’s The Forbidden Territory:

“The Duke de Reichleau and Mr Simon Aron had gone in to dinner at eight o’clock, but coffee was not served till after ten.”

Wheatley’s opening line gives us the very simplest of tips mentioned earlier; names and actions. What strikes interest here, other than the mundanity is the fact that there’s a gap in the timescale. Most of us wouldn’t question a two-hour gap for eating, but in this post-war era the inference is that something went on; a long discussion perhaps, or an unexpected guest. It makes us question what happened and is the simplest pull into a story.

Lovecraft Stories

Being Vague

Running the same theme of factual storytelling, Anne Rice, a vivid writer with a clean voice started Tales of the Body Thief with these very simple lines:

“The Vampire Lestat here. I have a story to tell you. It’s about something that happened to me.”

If the reader is familiar with Rice, Lestat is an old Vampire with several hundred years under his belt. Lestat’s informal voice comes from his adaptation to the modern world, like we’re supposed to know him. Indeed, this isn’t the first Lestat novel but it captures Lestat’s lazy and disregarding nature of mortals (which he desperately wants to recapture). So, Rice gives us a name but there’s no action! This is fine, because in a very blatant but well executed introduction, we know there’s a story to tell here. Again, the hindsight perspective works nicely to draw us in.

One last example of using unknown past circumstances comes from Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World one of many Wheel of Time books:

“The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what happened.”

Simple questions arise. More vague, check out the opening line to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte:

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

You can’t really get more vague – if this was Face Book I’d expect a lot of typical ‘U ok Hon’ type responses, but this is literature and we like vague; it makes us want to know; why?

What about real Action?

Hitting the reader with real, hardcore action works well in adventure style literature and can be as simple as the following, from Shadows in the Moonlight, another one of Howard’s classic sword & sorcery:

“A swift crashing of horses through tall reed; a heavy fall, a despairing cry.”

Here we are told very little, but the imagination is fired up; why are the horses crashing through a reed bed? I suspect there’s water so it’s hard work for horse and rider so must be important. Who or what fell heavily? Who cried out in desperation? Chances are this is the result of conflict, perhaps someone has escaped or is being chased? Less than fifteen words and we’re right into the action and already asking questions.

What about using the unusual?

Unusual openings are a great way to confuse and entice readers, but they must be concise so as to avoid convoluted circles which can lose your audience. I’ll draw from Lovecraft (Call of Cthulhu) and Howard (Shadows of Zamboula) for two examples.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

Here Lovecraft poses a statement with a hint of reflection. What contents of the human mind are we trying to correlate? The vague hints at something deep can start the mind turning! From Howard:

“Peril hides in the house of Aram Baksh!”

Here Howard makes it very clear that there’s an element of danger, whether we believe the statement or not. The fact that it is spoken word and not narrative drops us into a place of uncertainties; who do we trust, the opinion of the speaker or the fact of a statement? We also have a name and a location – the ABC’s at work. The undertone of emotion (peril, danger or horror) tempts us with the thrill of a something we should probably avoid but can’t help but read – we’re all insects buzzing closer to that blue light in a day dream. speaking of dreams, Lovecraft’s The Silver Key:

“When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams.”

Here Lovecraft is suggesting there is a place that is a literal door to dreams. It implies more than the normal world without having to explain with exposition what on earth is going to happen. It is unusual but also includes elements of naming and action (in the loss of something) as well as giving us a snippet of description for Mr Carter. Added to this, we ask the question: how did the character get into this?

Call of Cthulhu

Finally, formality

As mentioned before, Rice uses Lestat’s voice to bring us in close enough to get bitten by giving the vampire an informal tone. We’re expecting perhaps blood and violence right away, instead we’re given a friendly talking to, perhaps imagined on the TV screen or the phone.

The narrators voice can also be twisted to formality or otherwise to give us some perspective, allowing to see more story without literally writing it in. Another great example from Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model:

“You needn’t think I’m crazy, Eliot – plenty of others have queerer prejudices than this.”

Here we’re being pulled into why the narrator struggles with underground transport, but we don’t really know why, and in true Lovecraftian style we’re pulled slowly and inexorably to the climax of the horror – things lurk – which the narrator never wishes to comprehend again, but we’re going to read about it and understand why.

Not Quite the beginning

A second point of interest is that Lovecraft didn’t start right at the beginning of Pickman’s Model. Rather, he started just after the beginning of the conversation between the narrator and Eliot. Yet another great way to make your start interesting. Some of the previous examples do this too – we’re trying to draw our reader in. Ever heard the phrase ‘What’s in the box!?’ well that’s what we’re tapping into when we start not quite at the beginning.

Where does the learning come in?

We’ve pointed out some great opening lines and investigated what makes them good. To get into practice of creating great opening lines you should probably consider these last few bits of advice:

  • Write your opening lines last – no one wrote a great opening line first time. Much like any other aspect of writing, you’ll probably need to plan your writing rather than trying to create the best opening line right away.
  • Read lots of great opening lines, even if you don’t read all of the book. If you have access to books, jot down a few opening lines each day and dissect them like you’re a pathologist of words. You’ll soon start to see what makes great opening lines and not. Goosebumps are a good sign!
  • If in doubt, try, try again. You’ll not this get this right first time, maybe not even second or third time. Get advice from friends and fellow authors (this bit can be hard for closet writers!) Feedback is key, as you’ll not be buying your own book!

Now that you’ve got a better idea about what makes a great introduction or opening line, have another go yourself, even if you’re nowhere near finishing your novel or story. It can be self-inspiring and refreshing to have a go.

Go forth and kindle those flaming juices of imagination!

I’m going to start on my opening line for this article…

J.D Ferris, CC

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