Your opening lines are your first chance to hook readers — or to lose them. This week, learn to use your piece’s angle to craft an engaging, compelling opening that commands readers’ attention.
Jump to any section of this week’s workshop:
Dandruff shampoo commercials don’t lie: you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Your opening lines are your first chance to hook your reader — but also to lose them. Nowhere is this truer than on the internet, where we make near instantaneous judgments on whether to stay on a page, or move on.
Last week, you found your story’s angle. Next, make sure people stick around by crafting a compelling opening: a question your readers can’t refuse, asked in a way only you can.
What makes a great opening?
Throughout this workshop, we’ll explore the openings and hooks of famous novels, and touch on nonfiction and film. Remember that these techniques can be applied to all genres and styles, from memoir to journalism to experimental prose.
You might not love The Catcher in the Rye — I can’t say it’s one of my favorites — but there’s no denying that it’s got an effective opening:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
— J. D. Salinger
Salinger sets up the entire novel in this sentence, giving us previews of everything from sentence structure to our narrator’s personality. You may not know exactly what’s going to happen over the next 250 pages, but his mood and style are established with these 63 words.
The crux of the intro, though, is the question it prompts us to ask: who is this kid, and what’s the bee in his bonnet? Once the question is out there, there’s no turning back. There are few things more tantalizing than the hope of understanding the unexplained, and so we turn the page.
Of course, a great opening doesn’t need 60+ words. A third as many can do a dandy job:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
— Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Or even a tenth:
All this happened, more or less.
— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Feeling pithy? These authors also mastered the short but effective intro:
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
— E B White, Charlotte’s Web
They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet.
— Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked
My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.
— Mary Karr, The Liars’ Club
My high school friends have begun to suspect I haven’t told them the full story of my life.
— Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
— C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
In six words, Vonnegut establishes the storyteller as an unreliable narrator and prepares you to dive into an off-kilter, multi-layered story. Most importantly, he provokes a tantalizing question: how do I know what to believe? Wanting the answer keeps us reading.
One Hundred Years of Solitude sets off a cascade of specific questions. Who is the Colonel? Why is he facing a firing squad? Why does it remind him of the day with his father, and why did anyone need to “discover” ice? For a novel that’s a keystone of magical realism — where fantastic stories are relayed as mundane, everyday occurrences — these questions lift the reader out of the ordinary and prepare them to confront the unexpected, but do it in a matter-of-fact way.
Each of these authors presented their fundamental questions through the lens of their particular viewpoints, and that’s what makes their opening lines sing. If you can distill your subject into the question or two that your piece seeks to address and you’re clear on the perspective from which you’re writing — your angle — you can do the same to craft a great opening.
(If you aren’t clear on each of those, you probably need to do a bit more thinking about what you want to accomplish. Refer back to Krista’s workshop, which includes tips for figuring out your angle.)
Translating the big question
A strong opening can take a variety of forms, but in every case, it presents an unanswered question meant to draw the reader in. How you turn your topic into a question is wide open to interpretation — and is firmly rooted in your unique angle — but we can rewrite most great hooks as questions.
One of my favorite columns from humorist Dave Barry condenses great works of literature into single-sentence synopses. My favorite is his funny but astute take on Dostoyevsky’s epic The Brothers Karamazov:
Is there a god? Beats me.
Talk about a focused angle! The novel sprawls across hundreds of pages, but it all hangs together — and keeps us intrigued — because Fyodor never loses sight of his fundamental question.
In Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides takes a page from Gabriel García Márquez’s use of fascinating detail but gives it his own spin, introducing irresistible questions cloaked in quotidian details:
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
Translation: Can a person’s life change so much that they’re literally reborn as someone else?
Tolstoy, in an opening line often hailed as one of literature’s best, sets up the underlying theme of Anna Karenina without sharing any detail at all:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Translation: Why do unhappy families differ?
Quick Tip: Think about your favorite movies for inspiration. How do they begin? What’s the opening shot? In Chuck Sambuchino’s post on how to start a novel, he asks you to visualize the opening of the film True Lies and go “inside-out” when starting your story. It’s a nice read for all writers, not just novelists.
True Grit — a novel before it was a film by the Coen Brothers — opens with a huge spoiler, but withholds critical details. The effect? We have to keep reading to discover the who, what, when, where, why, and how:
People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say that it did not happen every day.
Translation: What turned a fourteen-year-old girl into a vigilante?
The classic opening to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar places the story in a specific time period, but isn’t specific about much else:
Translation: What’s it like to be unmoored in your own life?
This isn’t to suggest that a great opening needs to be short, shocking, or mysteriously devoid of details to hook a reader. E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News opens with an abundance of detail:
Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate town.
Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.
His jobs: distributor of vending machine candy, all-night clerk in a convenience store, a third-rate newspaperman. At thirty-six, bereft, brimming with grief and thwarted love, Quoyle steered away to Newfoundland, the rock that had generated his ancestors, a place he had never been nor thought to go.
Translation: What drives a repressed man into the unknown?
That we can picture Quoyle creates the same compulsion to keep reading — we can see him, maybe even identify with him, so we need to know what happens to him (and why).
Notes for bloggers and nonfiction/essay writers publishing online:
There’s so much to read on the web, your piece needs to stand out right from the start — you’ve got a few seconds to hook a reader. Some quick tips for a timely, attention-grabbing post:
- Start with an epigraph. Open your piece with a quote that resonates with you, or a great passage from a recent relevant article you’ve read.
- Grab ’em with a trending story. No matter what style you’re writing in — personal essay, journal article, memoir — you can use a news or viral story to introduce your post, if it’s relevant to your subject. This attracts readers searching for material on the topic, and makes your piece part of a larger discussion on the internet.
- Enhance with imagery. Insert a stunning photograph to accompany your opening — one that complements your words. If you’re not the world’s best shutterbug, check out these sites for free images.
Nor is a great opening the sole province of fiction writers. Check out Rachel Maddux, introducing her nonfiction piece “Hail Dayton“:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, or maybe he didn’t, but either way vast ribbons of peat came to rest under what became the foothills of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, and in time the peat became coal, and later the railroads arrived, along with mines and coke ovens, and near one lazy arc of the Tennessee River workers built homes to return to after their long days of burrowing and burning, and the homes became a town, and the town was called Dayton.
Translation: What’s so special about Dayton?
Never have I been so interested to read about Ohio.
Try a few test runs to pump yourself up to write your own opening:
- First, pick up a few of your favorite books or articles, pieces that you always remember because they commanded your attention from the first line. Read the first paragraphs, and translate the authors’ lines into a question or two.
- Now, look back at a few of your already-published pieces — pick one of the posts you’re proudest of, or one that got a particularly positive response from readers. Read your openings. Did you start with a big question?
From question to angle to hook
Insofar as any creative process like writing can be distilled into a bulleted, three-step process, here’s what you’ll do next:
I know, I know: step three is the rub. Did you really think writing a great intro had a foolproof formula? If only.
- Start with your subject. (This is the big question you’re exploring. What are you writing about, and why?)
- Next, consider your angle. (Remember, this is the unique way you’re approaching your question.)
- Finally, smoosh ’em together. (This is where you figure out how to ask your big question in a way that’s unmistakably you.)
When combining your big question with your angle, consider the difference between “I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies,” and “I’m in an office, talking to two men.” The former is from the great David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, setting the scene and hinting that the speaker doesn’t view the world quite like the rest of us. The latter is me, sans angle. (I know which piece I’d keep reading.)
Sometimes we don’t know exactly what our big question is until we’ve written through it. You can return to this workshop later; these tools will still work whether you’re starting from the beginning, or starting from the end.
Even if you think you have the perfect opening now, revisit it throughout the writing process. As Joyce Carol Oates said: “The first sentence can’t be written until the last sentence is written.”
As the examples we’ve looked at illustrate, you could open your piece in so many different ways. Here are some approaches to try on for size:
A simple statement. “It was a pleasure to burn,” begins Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451. Burn what? Why? Why does the speaker take pleasure in the destruction, and will s/he reflect any further on this? Just like the intro of Slaughterhouse-Five, these six words do the work of many more. This approach works well for pieces with a matter-of-fact style, or pieces where you want the reader to quickly identify with your topic.
A not-so-simple statement. “We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge,” writes John MacDonald, who stops us in our tracks at the start of Darker Than Amber. We know someone is up to no good, and we know the book won’t be pulling any punches.
I also love how Frank McCourt begins his 1996 memoir Angela’s Ashes. He writes: “My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.” It begins with no surprises, but ends unexpectedly.
John Scalzi employs a more lighthearted take in The Android’s Dream: “Dirk Moeller didn’t know if he could fart his way into a major diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out.” Phrases like these make us do a virtual spit-take, and are great for jarring readers into paying attention.
The middle of a moment. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” At the beginning of George Orwell’s 1984, we know when we are…but we also know something is amiss in this world we’ve entered.
Hunter S. Thompson also goes this route in the opening of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
Starting in the middle creates an immersive experience for your reader.
An introduction of voice. Consider this line from Augusten Burroughs’ memoir of his bizarre childhood, Running With Scissors: “My mother is standing in front of the bathroom mirror smelling polished and ready; like Jean Nate, Dippity Do and the waxy sweetness of lipstick.” We’re introduced to Burroughs’ sharp and distinct voice immediately.
The same goes for Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book called The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.” For a piece where language, voice, or cadence play a starring role, this puts them front and center.
A statement of principles or values. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the poster child here, but many authors have done this effectively, including Margaret Atwood in Cat’s Eye (“Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space”) and V.S. Naipaul in A Bend in the River (“The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it”). Give this a try to kick off a philosophical or reflective piece.
A richly detailed picture. In the nonfiction classic Hiroshima, John Hersey sets the scene with great detail: “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”
In A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy O’Toole shows us that detail can also be brief. He introduces main character Ignatius J. Reilly as: “A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head.”
In The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler focuses instead on details of a place, rather than a character:
Like starting in the middle, this immerses the reader, but the effect is a bit different.
A description of mood. Some writers, like Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar and Susanna Kaysen in Girl, Interrupted, choose to steep us in the mood of the story to come. In her memoir chronicling her stay in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s, Kaysen writes: “People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well.”
The Grapes of Wrath does the same: “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”
Dostoyevsky creates a similar effect in Notes from the Underground, in which the protagonist tells us, “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I think my liver is diseased.”
A straightforward introduction. Gimmicks and tactics aside, some stories make a convincing case for just starting at the beginning:
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,” writes Stephen King in The Gunslinger.
“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested,” begins Franz Kafka’s The Trial.
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler,” writes Calvino.
This can be a great set-up for nonfiction pieces, and, funnily enough, for fiction — the juxtaposition of the mundane and the fantastic can be quite engaging.
* * *
Time to roll up your sleeves! This is a time to play — write five different intro sentences, or ten.
If you’ve had a lightbulb moment and have an opening that moves you, hooray! If not, start with a few of the options above, and see whether one helps you express your angle. This is a time to play — write five different intro sentences, or ten. Which ones express what you hope to say? Riff on them, and mix and match elements from all of your attempts to create just the right opening, which we hope you’ll share in the Commons.
Along with the facts you want to present, think about how you want your reader to feel and what parts of your story you want to emphasize. Do you want to shock them? Make them laugh? Make them uncomfortable? Bring them into your story gradually? Have them begin reading in a good mood? An apprehensive mood? A gloomy mood? An excited mood? These are questions that will inform the way you translate your question.
How not to get started
Knowing your angle and figuring out your question are critical, but having both don’t ensure an amazing hook. There are ways we can go wrong in introductions.
Consider this reimagined intro for Slaughterhouse-Five: “Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist, time travels to various points of his own life (and death). The World War II firebombing of Dresden plays a major role, and also there are aliens. He gets shot at the end.”
With all due apologies to Mr. Vonnegut for that synopsis, is that a book you’d want to read? (I wouldn’t.) The simple “All this happened, more or less,” is far more intriguing.
We give away too much. It’s easy to fall into the overkill pit; we want to entice ALL THE READERS, so we throw ALL THE DETAILS up front hoping that everyone will find something that intrigues them. The problem: why should the reader keep reading?
None of these openings we’ve looked at give away the whole story; even the spoiler-filled True Grit or richly detailed The Shipping News withhold key facts.
We bury the lede. Your “lede” is your big question, the point of your piece. You bury it when you begin with lots of non-essential details that push the point of the piece further away from the beginning — the longer it takes for your big question to hook your reader, the more likely it is that they’ll check out before they get there.
We start from the very beginning. This is a common way of burying the lede. If I’m writing a post about a particular moment in this year’s Little League World Series, it makes sense to include information about the history of Little League baseball somewhere in the post. But if I start my post in 1880 and trace that history before I ever get to my actual subject (or introduce my angle), most readers aren’t going to make it.
Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.
— Mark Twain
We don’t discern among details. This is another easy way to heap dirt on the lede. All details are not created equal; some of them add richness to your piece, and some are a distraction.
Including every detail is the written equivalent of your friend who can never get to the point of a story because he can’t remember if it happened on Tuesday or Wednesday, or if it was 1 PM or 2 PM, or if the car was red or blue. If a detail plays a role, either because it’s key to the timeline or a character or creates the feeling you’re aiming for, great. If not, keep it out of your opening.
* * *
Okay, that’s enough words spilled in the service of an introductory paragraph!
Time to write: take your pick of the exercises outlined above, or just start typing and see where your fingers take you. Then, head to the Commons to share your opening lines and see what other participants have come up with for their own posts.
Images from A Diagrammatical Dissertation.