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So, the beginning of any story needs to capture the attention of the reader, so he continues and wants to find out what's happening.

A Confederacy of Dunces starts "A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head." and gives you just enough to visualize the character yet so little to make you want to continue to read.

What techniques are there to come up with a line to simply capture a reader's interest?

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10 Answers 10

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My experience has been lack of context and mystery most quickly grab my attention. I believe this has to do with the need of the human mind to create order and solve problems. Perhaps examples will illustrate this.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Cold April day, northern hemisphere... clocks striking... what?

"They shoot the white girl first."

Shooting girls? Because of their race? Or is it incidental? Where is this? What is happening?

"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."

The sink? Writing? How? Why? WTF is going on here?

And so forth. YMMV.

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"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink" is my favorite opening line ever. –  justkt Nov 19 '10 at 17:07
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One does have to be rather careful to avoid creating a Bulwer-Lytton award nominee, though. –  Stan Rogers Feb 16 '11 at 16:51
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Why careful? If you do, just submit it! :) bulwer-lytton.com –  Yardboy Feb 16 '11 at 19:26
    
Another way is to start with the key line of the dialogue and build from there. "You want to nuke Paris?" –  SF. Sep 3 '13 at 10:34

First lines, like character names, are hard. Don't let them keep you from writing your story. In fact you may find that you write a better first line by writing your story first. Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence opens with a scene that is in many ways a microcosm of the whole novel. It begins:

On a January evening of the early seventies Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.

The interesting thing is that Christine Nilsson goes on to become completely unimportant in the work. The setting of the opera, however, is absolutely critical to showing Wharton's "old New York" as it was. The opening line does encapsulate some interesting things - Faust and connotations of adultery, the upper crust lifestyle of opera attendees in the late 19th century, etc.

So one good way to write a great opening line is to write your story and then write a line that sets the stage for your entire story by setting up a scene that shows your story in miniature.

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+1: Writing the story first is exactly what the authors at Writing Excuses recommend. I think most first chapters were written to be thrown out. We only know how to effectively begin once we know where the story ends. And I imagine that's true for the first line, too. –  Nathan Fischer Dec 5 '10 at 9:05

Here, use this: "Call me Ishmael."

Or:

"Lolita. Light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul."

I think one very important quality that a good opening sentence has to have is that it is musical (not sing-songy). If you don't know what I mean, then you should forget my comment. To me, the best writers are aware of the rhythm and flow of their sentences, and will reject one if it feels awkward, ungainly, too this or too that to flow effortlessly.

For that, tho, you need to have a well developed ear. I'm not sure how to get one of those, to be honest. Some people I've tried to explain this concept to see unable to grok.

Maybe it's like Kurt Vonnegut's comment about Billy Pilgrim's huge penis: "You never know who's going to get one."

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For a well developed, well, ear, you read. Lots. Lots more than me, that's fer sure. Of course, it's more an eye than an ear, but there you are. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 21 '10 at 19:52
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Reading aloud can help develop the ear as well as the eye. If you're too shy or have very thin apartment walls, just try too really hear the words in your head, imagining how they would sound and what kind of inflection and rhythm would be used if they were spoken aloud. –  InkAndPixelClub Feb 10 '11 at 17:06
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grok... well, I'd not seen that word outside the new hacker's dictionary in quite a while... –  iajrz Mar 21 '11 at 3:25

A good opening line gets the reader hooked and eager to read the next line. Great opening lines do that while giving the reader important information not just about the opening scene, but the entire story. Aside from the title, this is your first chance to tell your reader what your story is going to be. So you have to play fair. You can have a fantastic, intriguing opening line - like the aforementioned "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink," but you have to follow through on that. The fact at the narrator is writing while sitting in the kitchen sink has to mean something. Even if the only reason the character is sitting in the kitchen sink is because the floor isn't finished and there are not chairs, that has to mean something. . If the fact that the narrator is sitting in the sink and writing has no bearing on the rest of the story, then your first sentence is false advertising. So no dreams, TV shows, or any other fantasy (in relation to the "reality" of your story) content as the beginning of your story unless it has a clear link to and impact on what comes afterwards.

One of my favorite openings lines is "What's Papa gonna do with that axe?" the kickoff to E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. White wastes no time on anything that might bore his readers, like explaining who Fern is and where she lives or having Fern and her mother say good morning to each other and exchange small talk. He goes right for the story. It's a question, which automatically sets up for an answer, and it's dialogue, which suggests at least two people in the scene with minimal effort on the writer's part. We don't actually know who is speaking yet, but we can make the educated guess that it's someone young, judging by the reference to "Papa" and the relatively informal English. The mention of an axe suggests the possibility of violence, but still retains some mystery because axes can be used for completely nonviolent tasks. (This wouldn't be a very good opening line if Fern's father was just going to cut down a tree and cutting down trees had little or nothing to do with the story. If the axe had been a knife or a guillotine, there would have been less mystery and less reason for Fern to ask about it.) And the problem set up in this first line is the central problem of the whole book: the threat to the life of Wilbur the pig. That axe is going to hang over our protagonist's head metaphorically for most of the book.

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One thing is just to jump right into the action, e.g. "Babjack pulled to the curb and cut the engine." The master of this form was "Richard Stark" (Donald Westlake), whose novels always started with lines like "When the phone rang Parker was in the garage, killing a man."

I think the emphasis on first lines is a little exaggerated. Most readers will read more than one line. On the other hand, a good first line can set the tone for the rest of the story.

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I find the best opening lines to involve either very strong imagery (as your example above,) or some sense of anticipation - something important is about to happen, or perhaps already has happened and we're dumped immediately into the after-effects.

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For me, the "opening line" usually only presents itself after I've been writing at something a while. For a short story I might "discover" the opening line once I become brave with my editing-- I go back a day or two later and see that what I thought was an opener is not...really. the real opening line is revealed a few sentences in, or even a paragraph or two. After you've written a bit, try going back to where you started and covering up the first few sentences to see if you can identify or "hear" the REAL opening line. Hint: it's usually a place where you yank your reader suddenly into the story.

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I was about to answer this as well -- I often only find the "right" title for my blog posts after I've written the whole thing. So I use a placeholder title until I get to the end, so I can write the beginning properly. :) –  Jeff Atwood Feb 16 '11 at 18:22

First of all, stop using the word "so" at the beginning of your sentences. The current fad of starting every conversation with "so" is pointless and practically idiotic, and letting it slip into written English is nonsensical. And please don't point out that there are reasons to begin sentences with "so." Of course there are. If you have a legitimate reason, do it. Otherwise, don't.

Beyond that, in my opinion, the best opening lines are ones that simply put the reader into the middle of the action. Try this one on for size:

Charlie was thinking, Bennie, I told you no way a friggin' .22, because look at that,the creep was only bleeding, and running, getting away, and it didn't do Charlie no good to be right about the gun now, cuz how was he gonna tell Mr. Carter and come out of that alive?

Do you want to read the rest of that story? I hope to heck you do, because if you don't, I'd have to wonder if you have a pulse. You're looking at four characters, one of whom was just shot, two of whom are possibly friends and maybe rivals, a whole bunch of interaction that obviously has already happened among them, one guy who is probably going to kill another guy for not killing someone whom he wants killed... I could go on. There's a heck of a lot happening in a single sentence, isn't there?

Start your story in the middle, using an opening line that talks about something that is really interesting but doesn't reveal it all, then go into backstory, and usually your opening line will be plenty interesting enough.

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The first sentence doesn't need to make the reader want to read the rest of the book. -- just the second sentence. And so on.

For example, the opening line of The Hobbit: "In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit." The hobbit is thus introduced right away, but in a slightly deceiving way. Because in the next sentence Tolkien goes on to tell you about -- the hole! He doesn't bother explaining what a hobbit is until the reader has gone several paragraphs reading about that hole (and all the time wondering about its inhabitant).

Why is the hole so important? During most of the book, the hobbit is NOT in his hole. Aah, but he wishes (not for the last time) that he were. Concentrating on the hole at the beginning establishes clearly that the book is hobbit-centric. The POV isn't just Bilbo's. It's the POV of a hobbit who -- despite all his adventures -- is parochial and proud of it.

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With a view to capture reader's interest, you can do the following :

a) Prefer to start first line with a question. It's good to write controversial question like this "Check it in or Carry it on".

b) First sentence should include quotations as well that are related to the story.

c) Use opposing opinion in first sentence.

d) Begin your paragraph with an anecdote or short narrative.

e) Add interesting facts to the first sentence.

Hope this will make the story's introduction as well as beginning quite interesting so as to catch readers and continue them to read.

Thanks,

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