Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Part 2 -What Makes a Great Opening Line?)

Well crafted prose doesn’t necessarily create great opening lines

This post is the second in a series on what makes any story’s – flash through novel – opening line great. Part 1 provided some background and why opinions only matter if you know enough about a subject to make an informed decision.
Let me know what you think are great opening lines and I’ll include them in the series provided you explain what makes them great.

Where an elegantly crafted sentence doesn’t matter (as much) is with the first, opening line of a story (any length, any genre, fiction). Nancy Ann Dibble (writing as Ansen Dibell) wrote in Plot “…every effective beginning needs to do three things”:

  1. Get the story going and show what kind of story it’s going to be.
  2. Introduce and characterize the protagonist.
  3. Engage the reader’s interest in reading on.

Get past the technical and a great opening line must take the reader into the mythic, specifically the story’s mythic; its setting, plot, characters and so on. At best it’ll propel the reader into the story’s mythic, at the least it’ll invite the reader into the story’s mythic and anything combining those two is over the top good.

A great opening line offers the reader no room for escape, no chance for egress, no opportunity to back away. I state it simply as “You’re either in or you’re out.” A good opening line should either put the reader firmly in the story or leave them at the door, wishing them well, hoping they catch the next train and leaving them to other, more enjoyable journeys.

For them.

Again, subjectivity wins.
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Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Part 1 – Introduction)

The difference between a good Scotch, a good wine and a good sentence has a lot to do with being a good mechanic

This post is the first in a series on what makes any story’s – flash through novel – opening line great. Let me know what you think are great opening lines and I’ll include them in the series provided you explain what makes them great.

Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One is a good, fun read.

Fish writes about beautiful sentences and how they’re constructed. He offers that Strunk&White is useful only if you already know lots of grammar and such. I’ve got no problem with that (have you read Strunk&White? It’s a treasure trove. Are you an author or author-wannabe? Do yourself a favor and read it).

Strunk&White is basically a mechanic’s manual for producing clear, understandable content in the English language, meaning unless you’re willing to get a set of wrenches and such and unless you’re willing to open the hood or climb under your sentence, don’t read the book, you won’t understand it and will probably do both yourself and your prose harm if you do.
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Setting Scenes with Props

Reality Makes Fiction Believable. Threat makes things interesting.

Deveraux stared at the calendar on the wall while he waited: a pastoral farm scene above a month of days and dates. Young men haying in the foreground, scythes in hands, an older man – broader back, heavier build – guided a horse-drawn cart. A few passes remained. In the distance a setting sun. One of the field hands stood wiping his brow with a bright red neckerchief. Another leaned on his scythe, watching him. A white-sided farmhouse and barn with two towering red silos in the distance, at the far end of the field.
Why didn’t they start here and finish at the barn? Wouldn’t it be less work that way?
Under the picture a woman’s delicate hand wrote over specific dates: anniversaries, birthdays, doctors and vet appointments – cat? dog? He hadn’t seen any pets when he walked in – school meetings, church cookouts. Two gold stars where kids won awards. A red heart on a Friday, a church holiday. He’d have to step carefully when he explained why he was here.
Someone approached, a woman, her step light, delicate – the same woman who marked the calendar? The smells of fresh washing line-hung to dry, a lemony furniture polish, a light soap and talcum came through the door before the woman did, wiping her hands on her apron as she did, speaking his name as a question, welcoming a guest yet unsure of his purpose, her voice rising at the end, “Lieutenant Deveraux?”
He held his gray fedora in his hands, his fingers on the brim, spinning it slowly like a kaleidoscope showing nothing but dull browns and blacks and grays.

Now consider this:
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William Noble’s “‘Shut Up!’ He explained”

Make every word your characters speak count

I reviewed William Noble’s Make That Scene on both Goodreads and in a bit more detail on my blog. That book was a gem, so I picked up Noble’s Shut Up! He explained and settled in for some good learnings.

Truth is, I’ve read the book twice in two years and will easily read it twice if not thrice more in the next few years. It’s that good.

Truly amusing to me is how little I retained from my first read. Of all that’s in the book, I locked on the gem about having characters ask each other questions to keep dialogue interesting, engaging and moving. Probably because I was writing lots of dialogue for a work-in-progress, Ritchie and Phyl (A Celebration of Life). That wonderful piece of advice became my big hammer for several dialogues in several works-in-progress. It’s an incredible tool all by itself and worth the price of admission.

But that, as noted, was what stuck with me from my first read. My second read had me dog-earing pages starting at 5 and several pages in each chapter thereafter.

For authors working on realistic, believable character exchanges – the book covers more than dialogue but dialogue is the main focus – it’s a must.
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Tension

Like a tightrope. Around your neck. Cutting off your air. Your eyes popping out. Your brain screaming for oxygen? That’s what you want your readers to feel.

What is “tension”?

Noun: tension
1. (psychology) a state of mental or emotional strain or suspense
2. The physical condition of being stretched or strained
3. (literature) a balance between and interplay of opposing elements or tendencies (especially in art or literature)
4. (physics) a stress that produces an elongation of an elastic physical body
5. Feelings of hostility that are not manifest
6. The action of stretching something tight

Verb: tension
1. Put an object in tension; pull or place strain on

(from WordWeb.info)

 
Have you ever read James Blish’s short story Surface Tension (originally published in the August 1952 Galaxy Magazine and muchly anthologized)? It deals with people striving to break through the surface of water. Any liquid creates a surface where it meets something other than itself. This surface creation is why two drops of water meeting bond into a larger drop rather than staying separate. The permeability of the surface is called “surface tension”. Doesn’t seem like much of a story, does it? People? Water?
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