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An unanswered question can even encompass an entire novel, as when David Copperfield asks, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” If you feel compelled to begin a story with dialogue, keep in mind that you’re thrusting your readers directly into a maelstrom in which it’s easy to lose them.One possible way around this is to begin with a single line of dialogue and then to draw back and to offer additional context before proceeding with the rest of the conversation—a rare instance in which starting close up and then providing a panorama sometimes works.
Many writers are taught that the more unusual or extreme their opening line, the more likely they are to “hook” the reader.
But what we’re not taught is that such large hooks also have the power to easily disappoint readers if the subsequent narrative doesn’t measure up.
This need not lead to elaborate or complex openings. For example, the opening sentence of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” tells the reader: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.” Already, we have a distinctive voice—somewhat distant, possibly ironic—referring to grandmother with a definite article. And we have a sense of characterization: a stubborn or determined elderly woman.
Although we do not know the precise setting, we can rule out Plato’s Athens, Italy under the Borgias and countless others. Yet what matters most is that we have direction—that O’Connor’s opening is not static.
While drilling aspiring literati on the subtleties of characterization and plot, few, if any, writing instructors offer lessons on crafting a first line, or even an introductory paragraph—though many agents and editors, if not impressed after a sentence or two, will read no further.
I started devoting an entire session of my writing class to opening lines when I realized that the last formal instruction I’d had on the subject was the grade school admonition that stories should begin with “a hook.” In the years since, I’ve come to believe that the fate of most literary endeavors is sealed within the initial paragraph—and that the seeds of that triumph or defeat are usually sown by the end of the very first Think of every opening line you write as a pebble tossed down a mountainside: The stone may jolt back and forth within a limited path, building up force, but the trajectory of its initial release largely determines its subsequent route.The only way to know this is to reconsider the opening sentence, like the title, once the final draft of the story is complete. That doesn’t mean your first opening needs to be scrapped entirely; instead, file it away for use in a future project.Needless to say, a brilliant opening line cannot salvage a story that lacks other merits, nor will your story be accepted for publication based on the opening alone.As a fishing buddy of mine explains, the trick is to use the smallest hook possible to make a catch—and then to pull like crazy in the opposite direction.In modern cinema, films commonly begin with the camera focused close up on an object and then draw back panoramically, often to revelatory effect, such as when what appears to be a nude form is actually revealed to be a piece of fruit. Most readers prefer to be “grounded” in context and to focus in. One of the easiest pitfalls in starting a story is to begin with an opening line that is confusing upon first reading, but that makes perfect sense once the reader learns additional information later in the story.But long sequences of dialogue at the outset of a story usually prove difficult to follow.Once you’ve given some concentrated thought to your own opening line, obtain copies of anthologies like and read only the first sentence of each story.Never forget that the entire course of a story or novel, like an avalanche, is largely defined within its first seconds.To craft a compelling story, you must first launch it in the right direction. The first cardinal rule of opening lines is that they should possess most of the individual craft elements that make up the story as a whole.An opening line should have a distinctive voice, a point of view, a rudimentary plot and some hint of characterization.By the end of the first paragraph, we should also know the setting and conflict, unless there is a particular reason to withhold this information.