Some opening lines are so well known as that the story can be identified just by them and nothing more.
- “Call me Ishmeal.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851
- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984, 1949
Memorable opening lines like these are strokes of brilliance on the part of the authors, perhaps with a little luck and a bit of literary magic mixed in. But for the common author, the trick is to find the best opening possible, especially with the growing numbers of books and authors that are out there competing for readers. We need to find words that will make our work shine above the rest, words that will catch readers attention and draw them into the story, words that will be unique and memorable.
The beginning of a story can serve many purposes, only one of which is giving us a place to start. The opening sentences of paragraphs also need to draw readers’ interest, stirring questions that will make them want to read further, but they can also introduce the characters or offer a senseof place and time with vivid descriptions of setting. All my life I’ve heard about how important the opening lines of a story are, but it never really took root until I compiled five short fiction anthologies over the past two years.
My regular readers will remember that I sat on the editorial team for the Gilded Glass anthology and compiled a volume of Weird Tales to earn my M.A. in publishing. For new readers, who don’t know the story, we had over 600 submissions to comb through for Gilded Glass, and toward the end of the initial readings, if the beginning didn’t grab me right away, it was gone. There were just too many submissions to waste time on ones that I couldn’t engage with from the very beginning. This was rather painful for me, believe it or not, because I knew there were probably some good stories in there that just needed to be reworked a bit to become gems, and I didn’t have the time, or energy to find them.
On the other side of things, there were so many really good stories submitted that there was no way we could include them all, so many of the stories I truly loved didn’t make it into the anthology, and I felt it was a shame to have to turn them all away, so I kept a list of stories that I had fallen in love with, and after the final selection for Gilded Glass were made, I invited each author to have their stories included in a WordCrafter Press anthology. Not all of the authors accepted my offer, but enough did that I had material for three anthologies, and Once Upon an Ever After, Refracted Reflections, and the Visions anthologies were born.
Although I’ve strayed a bit in telling you all this, my point was that many of the stories included in those three anthologies got there because they had beginnings that were good enough to make me continue reading. Let me share with you three of my favorite story beginnings from the Visions anthology.
“I followed the two men down the beach for over an hour before I realized they were kidnapping me. I noticed howm far we’d strayed when the sun touched its reflection on the Carribean horizon, forming a perfect figure eight that shot rays of gold in all directions. The failing light and my primitive camera meant an end to the day’s photo shoot, so I decided to let them take me.Julie Jones – “Tourist Trap”
“Tourist Trap” is one of my favorites because it not only does a great job of giving me a sense of place with its setting description, but also leaves me with several questions, which now must be answered because my curiosity has been picqued. The nonchallant delivery of the words gives the impression that our character is not concerned by what most people would consider to be unusual, and maybe even alarming, circumstances. Why? Come on. Be honest. Now that you’ve read the above paragraph, don’t you just need to read more?
“He came toward her. His body moved lithely and confidentely, muscles rippling under tight-fitting jeans and white T-shirt. Thick, black hair covered his well-shaped head with its tawny skin and lightly stubbled jaw.
She peeped at his eyes. Those mysterious eyes she’d heard about. Her stomach dropped, lips numbed, and a strange ringing started in her ears.His eyes shone amber in the late afternon sun, like a predator before the kill. Even if she hadn’t known who and what he was, those awful eyes with their many sides like a diamond, would have filled her with terror.”Roberta Eaton Cheadle – “The Bite”
This visceral opening comes from the winning story from the 2022 WordCrafter Short Fiction Contest, “The Bite”, which is feaatured in the anthology. It sets the tone for the story, while offering hints about the characters, and stirring up just enough questions to make readers want to know more. Cheadle describes some very unusual eyes, and hints that this character is more than what he appears to be here. Who is this guy?
“I was staring out across the darkness of space, ignoring my hunger and isolation, when an alarm blared, startling me out of my meditations. I pulled my thoughts from where they’d wandered, sinking once again into my real-time brain, just as I pulled in my two-dozen tentacles in toward my body. Instead of presenting a sprawling mass, I was now a streamlined bullet.”Leah Cutter – “The Survivor”
The opening for “The Survivor” offers up a lot of information about the setting and situation, and enough about the character to make readers curious, and make them want to read more. Who is this lone character in space? Obviously not a human. Why is the alarm blaring? Has Cutter picqued your curiosity as much as she did mine?
It wouldn’t be fair to use the openings of others without taking a look at one of my own, so let’s take a look at my contribution to the Visions anthology, as well. My story was “If You’re Happy and You Know It”, which was originally published in The Collapsar Directive anthology, by Zombie Pirates Publishing in 2017. Give it a look and see if you think I did my job well with this opening.
“The way everyone was acting, you’d think it was a crime to be happy. And looking back, maybe it was, or at least, it might as well have been.
I think it started on a Saturday, or maybe a Sunday, so no one really noticed at first, including me. Everyone had recieved their regular allotment of S-Dopa for the weekend, so if they noticed anything, they would have assumed I’d just recieved a double dose, which didn’t happen often, but it did happen. On Monday however, when I sang along with the radio which ws always playing in the background at the computer factory as we slaved away everyday, the others gave me sidelong glances, as if, perhaps, I’d lost my mind.”Kaye Lynne Booth – “If You’re Happy and You Know It”
Which beginnings make YOU want to keep reading? I invite you to share your favorite beginning in the comments below. It will make it more of a conversation, (as Joanna Penn says).
For Kaye Lynne Booth, writing is a passion. Kaye Lynne is an author with published short fiction and poetry, both online and in print, including her short story collection, Last Call and Other Short Fiction; and her paranormal mystery novella, Hidden Secrets. Kaye holds a dual M.F.A. degree in Creative Writing with emphasis in genre fiction and screenwriting, and an M.A. in publishing. Kaye Lynne is the founder of WordCrafter Quality Writing & Author Services and WordCrafter Press. She also maintains an authors’ blog and website, Writing to be Read, where she publishes content of interest in the literary world.
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Thanks to contributing author Joseph Carrabis giving us a taste of the stories in the new Visions anthology from WordCrafter Press. Follow the link to learn more.