The Power of the Opening Line

I’m working a little bit on my August short story today, and I’ll probably work on it a lot more over the weekend. It’s slow going – I have a spark of an idea, but it’s not really a story yet, and I’m waiting to see where it might go.

And that got me thinking.

Back when I was in college, I took a creative writing class. One of our in-class assignments was to write a story around an opening line provided by the professor. We had fifteen minutes to write as much as we could. This was the line:

“When we saw the headlights coming, we ducked.”

I can’t remember what I wrote, but I remember that opening line. And I remember some of my other favorite opening lines, too.

How about:

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom noticed it when caught by her charm…”

Or:

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Also:

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Or, the old favorite:

“Call me Ishmael.”

Whether I enjoyed these books or not (I resolutely hated Gone with the Wind, and surprisingly loved Moby Dick), these lines have stuck with me, as have many others. This speaks, I think, to the power of a good opening line.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s a make or break thing. Many an excellent story has had a lackluster or an unassuming opening sentence. One of my personal favorites begins really rather quietly with just:

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

And I’ve never been very fond of this one, but everyone else seems to like it:

“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.”

Anyway, my point is this: A good opening line gives a story somewhere to go, and a really good opening line hooks a reader immediately.

In the spirit of fairness, here are some that I’ve written. Some are fine, some not so much. Some have become stories. Some are still waiting. But I thought it would be fun to share them.

Summer is the time for magic.

The girl stood alone on a beach she had never seen.

“This is not how my life was supposed to turn out.”

To anyone else, the door at the end of the hallway was just that – a door. 

It was Lloyd Alexander’s fault, not that she could ever tell him, seeing as she’d never met him, and he was dead.

See, sometimes, when I’m having trouble putting words together, I’ll just sit down and write first lines. No story or characters attached, no ideas, no strings. And I actually find it really helpful. And usually, one of those first lines will lead me somewhere.

So, tell me! Do you have any favorite opening lines? Or least favorites? Either that you’ve read or that you’ve written. Either way, I’d love to hear them!

16 thoughts on “The Power of the Opening Line

  1. Oh, what a fun post! And an excellent writing prompt. You had me looking through my pile of books to check their first lines 🙂 I love the one you mentioned about the boy called Eustace Clarence Stubbs. One of my favourites is the good old Plath’s Bell Jar:

    “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

    From yours, I really liked the last one: “It was Lloyd Alexander’s fault, not that she could ever tell him, seeing as she’d never met him, and he was dead.” Intriguing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head. As formative events go, nothing else comes close.”

    — Edgar Mint, from Brady Udall’s novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint

    Liked by 1 person

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