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Monday, July 4, 2016

Opening Lines

Opening Lines

by Gerald Costlow  @RebeccaJVickery @GeraldCostlow #romance #books

Let's talk about the all important opening line of the story. What makes a good opening line? We'll begin with an example off the top of my head, from our vast collection of Very Important Novels.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..." (Charles Dickins, A Tale of Two Cities)

This quote is recognized by anyone who received a traditional education. It's certainly a famous opening line, but is it a good example for us to follow on how to start a story? In other words, if a publisher received this manuscript from an unknown writer named C. Dickens today, what would an editor think of this peculiar opening?

"Yes, Mister Dickens, it is clever, but gets in the way of the story. Delete the entire first paragraph and try again. Let events in the story show the reader why it was both the best and worst of times, depending on your situation. Don't lecture. Your audience will soon learn getting caught up in the French revolution sucked and being in London wasn't much better back then for the average citizen."

I guess writing styles have changed since the nineteenth century. Let's give you a couple of modern day opening lines from my work.

"Clyde Barrow stood over the grave of his wife and went insane." (Taking Liberty) I introduce a character at an important event that's critical to the story while warning the reader this is not a lighthearted comedy, all in the first sentence.

“My turn,” Deputy Seth Morgan said to his mule. “Knock, knock.” The mule put its ears back. “Who’s there?” it replied. (A Ring for a Lady) I introduce two characters, warn the readers this story is a bit of a tall tale, and let them know Seth is the kind of friendly deputy that likes to joke around. The reader learns later on that Seth still takes his job seriously.

Both examples get the reader into the story as quickly as possible, and that's all I asked. Simple and effective. Just as important, it gets me typing the story onto the page as quickly as possible. All writers share the experience of staring at a blank white page with a title across the top and needing to find that perfect place to start the story and the perfect opening line to start it with.

Writers would have already been given plenty of advice on what not to write. Don't begin with a weather report (It was a dark and stormy night with the wind south-southeast gusting to 20 knots.) Don't give a synopsis of the story (If I knew then what I know now, I would never have accepted the dare to sleep in a haunted house and caused the death of my good friend "M".) And for Heaven's sake don't regurgitate pages of backstory  (Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, an evil Empire ruled the planets and I'm going to start with a history lesson of the thousand years before that so pay attention all this is important to the plot, if you can find one.)

Of course, great writers break those rules all the time and get away with it. Does that mean you can, too? If you're breaking the rules just to prove you're a great writer, you aren't. If it's because the story needs something special in spite of the rules, then trust the story.

So what is the perfect opening? That's a trick question. There are a million opening lines but only one way to begin a story: engage the reader. Make the reader want to turn the page. How you do it is as individual as the story itself.

Now back to that blank white page. Here's a little trick I came up with that works for me, and it's the first time I've shared this secret. I imagine a tiny reader is on my shoulder. I say to the little guy, "Something marvelous happened. I'll tell you all about it." Then I fix the opening scene in my mind and start typing as I tell him the story. The opening lines come naturally to me that way, and I rarely have to revisit the beginning of the story in the editing stage.

If the little guy on my shoulder applauds as I type "The End", then I know I've written an interesting tale about interesting characters. And if this imaginary guy insists on following me around after that and commenting on my lack of a social life, I know it's time to take a break from writing. But I digress.

What's your favorite opening line?
P.S. I might not be Charles Dickens, but I can now tell the world I was quoted alongside that great author. I'll leave out the detail that I was the one doing the quoting. It was the tallest of times; it was the shortest of times… 

Gerald Costlow is currently writing a supernatural romance series that spans generations for VTP Publishing. You can find a list of his published stories at Gerald Costlow at Amazon.com. His blog (such as it is) can be found at http://theweaving.blogspot.com/ and he promises to get it caught up as soon as he finishes his next story.     


  1. Gerald, I always look forward to your posts and your witty words. Some of your examples today had me laughing out loud (literally). I confess that I actually do love some of those memorable opening lines in the Classics. And I still enjoy a slow starting story that gains momentum as it unfolds. But what do I know? You gave us some wonderful examples of how not and how to do this writing thing. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. If we writers can't laugh at ourselves once in a while, we'd have a hard time getting our readers to laugh with us.

  2. Sage advice, Gerald. What may have worked back in the day is not going to fly in a modern and sophisticated audience. Of course, your suggestions are too late for me. I've already made many of these mistakes. Seems I only learn things the hard way through experience.
    As much as I love the classics, I truly enjoy today's exciting and interesting first lines.
    It's always a joy to read your posts.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Sarah, and I have the feeling any mistakes you make in the opening paragraph are quickly forgiven by the interesting storys you go on to tell.

  3. I enjoyed your take on first lines. That was a steep learning curve for me.
    I won a casual on-line contest once with the first line of All My Hopes and Dreams. "If I'd known running away would be this hot and dirty, I would have stayed home," she mumbled as she brushed the dust from the skirt of her best lavender day dress."

    And my favorite first line of all time--The Hellion by LaVyrle Spencer:
    It was well known around Russellville, Alabama, that Tommy Lee Gentry drove like a rebellious teenager, drank like a parolee fresh out, and whored like a lumberjack at the first spring thaw.

    Thanks for the reminders, Gerald, and also that sometimes we can get by with a wrong beginning.

    1. Oh yes, you do a great job! And your opening line tells us so much about the character, in one sentence. What sort of person puts on their best clothes to run away? Already I'm intrigued.

  4. “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it.”


    1. It's been so long since I'd read Gone With the Wind, I'd forgotten what a great first line it had.


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