As an English teacher, I work closely with students to develop their writing. One question I often get asked is, ‘how do I write a good opening?’ Of course, this isn’t just a question asked by high school students – I see many aspiring authors ask the exact same question on writing forums! Before I share my thoughts on this, let’s take a look at the opening lines from a few of my favourite books…
You’re just lucky I stopped with three, as I could easily have included the beginnings of hundreds of books I love. However, I do believe they all have similar qualities.
Every single one of these opening paragraphs makes the reader ask questions. Why is that important? So that they keep reading in order to figure out the answers, of course!
In the opening chapters of The Girl with all the Gifts, we wonder why the children’s names are selected from a list. This isn’t normal, is it some sort of boarding house perhaps? We also wonder who Miss Justineau is, and why Melanie likes the name Pandora. Of course, if you’ve read the book, you find that the allusions to Pandora’s box are numerous (even the title is the literal translation of Pandora) and incredibly significant to the little girl.
Similarly, in that intriguing opening to The Hunger Games, we are left with the foreboding image of ‘the reaping.’ We know that her sister has crawled into bed with her mother because of some sort of event which happens a) regularly and b) causes bad dreams. However, we are no closer to understanding what this event might be. In fact, by the time we work out that they are selecting children to fight to the death, we are already a few chapters in and well-and-truly hooked. Clever.
Sea of Rust is also a fascinating book. I am slightly ashamed to admit that I was first drawn in by the cover, but it is pretty outstanding (the cover, and the story).
See, isn’t it divine! Anyway, in the opening paragraph we wonder who ‘she’ is, that the narrator keeps referring to. We also question why there is a flash of green on the horizon. The description of the setting is similarly bleak, which raises more questions than answers as well.
Often I proofread a story and discover that the introductory paragraphs seem to have no real significance to the overall plot. What I really like about the three opening paragraphs above are that they all hint at events and ideas which are incredibly important to the characters and often drive the narrative.
I’ve already talked about how the allusion to Pandora’s Box is a repeated motif throughout The Girl with all the Gifts. And if you’ve read The Hunger Games, you will know that the reaping is the catalyst for Katniss being a participant in the games and changing her life trajectory forever. Then there’s Sea of Rust, where the magic in the sunset is described and analysed several times, and the book even ends with the narrator hoping to see the flash one last time.
3. A strong voice
Now this one is really important. First your reader looks at the cover. If it’s interesting enough, they pick the book up, turn it over and read the blurb. Sound alright? Now they open your book and start reading the opening lines. Is the voice captivating? If not, that book will be put right back on the shelf where it came from. Should we judge books by covers and blurbs? Possibly not, even if we do. Should we judge a book by the opening paragraph? Hell, yes! If the narrative voice isn’t captivating at the beginning, why would we bother reading more?
Out of the excerpts above, I particularly like the way that Melanie’s younger perspective is communicated by the sentence structure and language choices. Read over it again and notice the narrative voice. Now consider your own character – what sort of perspective are you wanting to impart?
The opening paragraphs of your story are incredibly important. Make it intriguing for your reader. Include significant elements which will be investigated further in the body of your story. And make sure the narrative voice is strong and communicates the perspective you want to impart.
Got some other ideas about what makes a great opening to a story? Post them in the comments below, or let me know your favourite opening lines of a book.