I kind of love this old Peanuts comic because it so perfectly sums up the trouble with opening lines. Opening lines are hard. Really hard. Unlike later parts of a story, opening lines have to do double, triple and even quadruple duty.
Opening lines must:
1. Set the scene.
2. Introduce the protagonist.
3. Set the tone.
4. Engage the reader.
Holy shit, that’s a lot!
There’s tons of advice out there about how to do this. But I like to follow a few things I’ve learned over the years.
1. Avoid info dump. Setting the scene is important, but it needs to be organic and it needs to fit the rest of the story. If you’re spending all your time describing the main character’s bedroom, that room had better be damned important or the items described relevant later. Chekhov's guns are fine. Too much is just that, too much. A good way, I’ve found to set the scene is to do it piecemeal as the character notices things. Unless your character has a very specific reason to notice everything all at once most people notice a few salient features then more details later. It has to do with how our brains work.
2. Keep away from describing the character too much. Readers want to be able to insert themselves into the protagonist. This is especially true in regards to physical description. A few details are important. But otherwise leave the rest to the imagination. The best characters are ones who we get to know intimately internally over the course of the story. The reader forms a partnership with main character. But like most real life partnerships, you learn more about the other person over time. The opening lines are the first impression.
3. Introduce some of the central conflict right away. That doesn’t mean you need to dive right into your plot. But it does mean that the reader should start to get an idea of what are some of the hurdles the protagonist might have to overcome. It gives the reader a reason to keep turning the page.
4. Avoid clichés. The lines Snoopy is typing are cliché. Waking up is a cliché. Looking in the mirror is a cliché. Read enough books/stories and watch enough TV/Movies and you can start to pinpoint what’s been over done. Tropes aren’t bad. But clichés are crutches. They exist to prop up something that’s weak. Whether it is weak description, weak action, or even weak characters. Avoid the fuck out of them. Readers are savvy enough to recognize this. They may not know why something bothers them. But they will put the story down and walk away.
That being said, I’m still learning how to write good opening lines. It takes practice. Lots of practice.
But eventually, to paraphrase Professor Henry Higgins, you’ll sit back and go: “By Jove, I think I’ve got it!”
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