Only the Beginning: Crafting Memorable Opening Lines

by Jeffrey J. Michaels

Let us talk of opening lines. Where to start…Every writers conference and instructional course will emphasize the import, the absolutely vital, pivotal necessity of the first five words, the first five sentences, the first five paragraphs, and the first five pages as being paramount to selling your story. There is truth to this concept.

In the course of famous first lines the perennial fave tends to be “In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” As an opening it certainly has scope and a fair amount of poetic supremacy. It may even be the best first line ever written. But (he said semi-blasphemously) it is not the only good one out there.

On Writing

An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.

~ Stephen King, On Writing

As such A Tale of Two Cities holds a good place in literary history. You know the first part. It is such an ubiquitous part of our society, I bet you are saying it in your mind right now. But few know the full quote. It is really pretty awesome. Dickens writes,

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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Offhand I am not really sure who is speaking, but who cares!

My personal favorite is from a book everyone thinks they know, but most are wrong. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes is a stunning tale of raw passion, an argument about nature vs. nurture, civilization vs. primal jungle law, inherent nobility vs. inherited noble titles. All of those high-concept philosophical elements, plus it has a great cold opening. Here is an abbreviated version, but honestly, do yourself a favor and read the first book in the series. You will not regret it.

I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other. I may credit the seductive influence of an old vintage upon the narrator for the beginning of it, and my own skeptical incredulity during the days that followed for the balance of the strange tale….I do not say the story is true, for I did not witness the happenings which it portrays, but the fact that in the telling of it to you I have taken fictitious names for the principal characters quite sufficiently evidences the sincerity of my own belief that it MAY be true.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

Some first lines are memorable because they have been judged to be awful. “It was a dark and stormy night” is an often-mocked and parodied phrase written by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton in the opening sentence of his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford. But when you read the entire sentence you may get a different view.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Writer’s Digest described this sentence as “the literary posterchild for bad story starters.” On the other hand, the American Book Review ranked it as No. 22 on its “Best first lines from novels list.” What do you think?

What about your work? Do you have a good opening? Are you spending time crafting the first five lines as carefully as Noah Lukeman would advise? You have read Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages: A Writers Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile haven’t you?

Two Ways to Start

In seminars I speak of two specific ways to begin a story. Mise en Scene and In Media Res. Conceptually, they work best when considering the length of your work, though a skilled writer can use either one regardless of genre, or word count. But for most of us it is best to follow simple guidelines. So, long story or short?

Mise en Scene

Mise en Scene is a stage term meaning essentially to set the scenery. It offers a slower start and allows for the story to unfold. Generally it involves the description of the place or setting of the story and the reason the characters are there: mentally or physically or emotionally.

A pleasant aspect of using Mise en Scene includes the creative descriptions of the familiar and the way the writer uses language to set the tone of the tale. In a shorter story an author might feel the need to be more economical with description and scene setting. Trees might be bare and loom over park paths as the main character jogs in the early chill of winter. In using the Mise en Scene technique the trees may be arching their bare skeletal branches above cold paths, allowing pale sunlight to penetrate weakly into the park yet offering scant protection from ice laden winds. Jogging in the early chill the main character may feel falsely protected in some minor way by the trees. Then a sliver of wind slices past the red scarf loosely wrapped about her neck. In the second example the jogger may be experiencing some existential dread, as does the audience when offered the shading of the tone of language. Same scene essentially, but the beginning offers a separate experience.

In Media Res

In Media Res is more of a wakeup call. There is little scene setting and we get right into the action. When using this technique I personally enjoy opening with a line of dialogue that is both compelling and slightly confusing for the reader. There is a school of thought that discourages this practice, but done well it can propel your reader into the story quickly.

In both practices the first sentence sets not only the stage of the story but also the pace. You must make it all pay off, of course, and sooner rather than later or you will lose the reader. Give them a puzzling beginning but grant them solid clues as to where the tale is headed.

Mise en Scene is definitely a more useful concept if you are crafting a novel. When doing short stories, especially flash fiction, In Media Res is a skill necessary to master. The shorter the tale the less time and words you have to get the audience engaged, entertained, and satisfied. If the reader picks up a large book they already know they are in for a longer commitment of time. There is a tacit agreement and they will be more open and willing to allow for a slower, more leisurely paced genesis. Still, it is good to move them into the tale steadily. The pace may be slower, but it needs to be set and maintained with the idea of getting the reader to the conclusion.

Words to Remember

Beginnings are truly vital, but there must be a solid middle to sustain interest. What good is hooking a reader if they stop reading halfway through the story? It is a hungry fisherman who allows the fish to depart the hook while still in the sea. Half-read books are failures.

To make your story truly memorable, however, you must consider every word and sentence with equal importance. As you conceive the first lines, do you have the final lines in mind? A strong start is fine, but as anyone who participates in a foot race will tell you, a strong finish is necessary. What about the final five lines? Are they powerful enough to be remembered by your readers? Consider the conclusion of A Tale of Two Cities. Good stuff and memorable.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

Pretty good, don’t you think? I believe this Dickens guy might have a future.


Jeffrey J Michaels, Author

Jeffrey J Michaels, Author

Jeffrey J. Michaels is a Gemini. As such he is deeply involved in whatever interests him at the moment. His describes his book A Day at the Beach and Other Brief Diversions as “metaphyictional,” combining fantasy and humor with metaphysical elements. He is currently polishing a sweeping fantasy series of interconnected tales collectively known as The Mystical Histories. It is varied enough that he says he may even finish most of the stories. In his real life he is a well-respected creative and spiritual consultant. He does not like to talk about his award winning horror story.


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