Hooked! Writing Killer Opening Lines
It may seem obvious that the opening line in flash fiction is important, but after I spent a year reading almost 3,000 submissions for Flash Frog, I realize just how vital an opening line can be. A killer opening line can hook me instantly, while a flat opener already has me impatient. So I wanted to dive in and dissect what it is that makes a really strong first sentence. Of course ultimately there are endless possibilities, and so these are by no means hard ‘n fast rules, but I’ve narrowed down 5 elements of killer opening lines that tend to hook me instantly. And the really dynamite openers are doing more than one of these at the same time:
A) Person/Place/Conflict -- I love when a flash piece can immediately ground me in a specific character, a specific place, and introduce the conflict all in the opening line! This is the epitome of hitting the ground running. In flash, we don't have time to "set things up." We don't have time to paint a pretty picture and then introduce the quirky character and then let us know his or her confl-- too late, show's over! So if the piece is written as a traditional narrative, I would hope to see at least two of these three things in the first line, ideally all three. And if yours is doing only one, it might be worth taking a look at how to incorporate another, how to get that ball rolling a little faster.
B) Voice -- I can also be hooked by a strong voice. If the narrative voice is popping off the page from the opening line, it often doesn't matter as much what he or she is saying. I'm immediately in just to see what this character/narrator will say next. It's the voice I want to follow. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says she could watch John Cleese or Anthony Hopkins do dishes for an hour without needing much else to happen. She says this in reference to likeable narrators, and this is exactly how I feel about a strong (authentic) voice. Sure, eventually something has to happen, but if you can hook me with the voice, you may have bought yourself a little time.
C) Specificity -- Sometimes if something is shown with such confident, deft detail and clarity, whether it be an object or a setting or a person, we can get sucked into that world right away. Already in one line, we can feel the object in our hand or smell the room we are in.
D) Authority/honesty -- This one goes hand-in-hand with voice a bit. If there is a raw honesty that a first-person narrator shows us from word-one, I'm in. Honesty is a very attractive quality. Similarly, if a narrator (no matter the POV) states something with such authority, as if they know these characters, this world, this situation, inside and out, without hesitation, I'm intrigued. This authority is a type of honesty. As a reader I have confidence (and interest) that this narrator knows this story well and knows it is worth telling.
E) Wait, what? -- Admittedly, this might be where I cheat a bit. This might be my catch-all. But there are just some opening lines where I'm already stopped in my tracks. The author is either saying something I had never heard before or saying something in such a new way that I often pause in awe and ask -- wait, what? Which of course just propels me to read on with excitement. Of course, giving the advice to write something this new and original might seem too daunting, like always having to reinvent the wheel. But also, why not? Shouldn't we always be challenging and pushing ourselves to say something new? And if you do have something new to say, give it to us in that first line.
To look at some opening lines, I didn't search high and low to find the quintessential example of each item above. Instead, I just took the stories I had already highlighted in this FLASH on the FIVE series (with a couple Flash Frog stories thrown in). I was clearly drawn to these stories, so now I was curious how their opening lines held up to the above criteria. And I'm so pleasantly surprised by how blown away I was at these killer opening lines:
1) The boy at the water’s edge doesn’t give a shit about the Little Lending Library his mom planted in their front yard.
Here we have such a great immediate voice! There is no tip-toeing around how this boys feels. And notice how it wouldn't be as strong if it read, "The boy at the water's edge doesn't care about the..." It still works, but it's not nearly as strong. And the specificity of the Little Lending Library. I'm in!
2) She drove down Cherry Hill Road, far enough away from the spot where some little girl’s body was found naked, dumped by a man who stole her from her bedroom.
Wow! Talk about instant conflict! Not only with the girl who had been murdered, but who is this "she" character and where is she going? I also love the specificity ... Cherry Hill Road reads differently than "She drove down the road..." and that final phrase about the girl being stolen from her bedroom. While that detail doesn't end up being pertinent to the plot of the story, if you read this opening line without that phrase, it's not as strong. Specifics matter.
3) The Class of 1953 Tachikawa Air Base Bride School girls were fertile, well-fed and rested.
Wait, what? Bride school girls? What does that mean? I cringe but am dying to find out. And again with the specificity of the year and location. We are very much grounded in a specific time and place.
4) The Patrons want me to check the app as soon as I wake up so they don’t miss a chance to tell me what to do.
Again with the wait, what? Who are these Patrons and why are they telling this character what to do? Great opening sentences beg the reader to ask questions, and not because the lines are vague, abstract, or confusing. Quite the opposite.
5) The day Brad Pitt follows me, I run a mile in under nine minutes.
This is one of my favorites! Not only does it have a great wait, what? moment, but this is a great example of authority found in the narration. The focus of this sentence is actually the character's mile time and not that fact that Brad Pitt is following her, which means she has accepted this Brad Pitt fact as commonplace in her world. And this is a world I'm dying to read more of.
6) The townhouse on Agua Hedionda is two miles from the payphone on PCH where Janae picks me up, but it’s too early for Bob to be awake and we are too sober to head over, so we have a few shots of Malibu in the parking lot of Pig Liquor and cruise north to The Strand Bar where we can bum smokes while Janae presses her perfect tits up against Will.
Concrete setting? Check! Clear characters? Check! Tension and conflict? Check! (I'm already so concerned for these girls.) Incredible specificity? Big time check! And the long-winded, breathless sentence is oozing with voice. This one ticks a lot of boxes.
7) When the ghost arrives at the photo shoot, she is a burst of cold wind, a slight tinge of silver in the air.
This simple sentence is a another great example of an authoritative voice I'm drawn to. The focus of this beautifully-written sentence is how the ghost arrived at the photo shoot, not the basic fact that a ghost did arrive. It's instantly a world that intrigues me.
8) I caught a falling baby once.
By far the shortest sentence of this group, but definitely one of the most powerful. The wait, what? factor is through the roof. We have so many questions. Here is also a good example of the power of what is left off the page. This wild statement is not drowning in dramatics and exclamation points. There is a strength in its direct matter-of-fact-ness.
10) I lay my palm flat on the rough canvas of speckled paint, thick and coarse from Jackson Pollack’s abuse.
Another great wait, what? moment! The image of this character touching a Pollack painting so blatantly, it makes my shoulders tense. And notice the word choice at the very end: "...from Jackson Pollack's abuse." Now read the sentence again but replace "abuse" with something common and expected like "brush." Still a strong sentence, but not nearly the same impact.
11) Julia returned home from her business trip with the small state of Luxembourg in her purse.
Wait, what? Talk about a sentence that has definitely never been written before. And I love the casual tone. We assume this must be a metaphor or play on words, but we must read on to find out. And as it turns out, this sentence is quite literal.
12) I told the undertaker that I wanted to keep her teeth, so he suggested cremation.
Who is she and why does that narrator want to keep her teeth? And the undertaker doesn't seem to bat an eye at the request. Simple, strong, straightforward sentences can do so much. We are not rifling through pretty adjectives to find the core of the sentence. It's laid out bare before us.
13) I’ve got grandma’s hands, long and thick-veined, fingers knotty like redwood, stuffed in the back of my underwear drawer.
Wow, this sentence is an entire story unto itself! This one does something that I didn't mention above (but do discuss in my article on revision) , and that is it has a shift. Halfway through, we think this is a story about ancestral genes. We might be thinking, aww yes, I have my grandfather's eyes, and then bam! We're hit with the "stuffed in the back of my underwear drawer." And now we're definitely not thinking about gramps anymore. Great shift! And I love that they are not in a safe, or a trophy case, or even on the mantel... but in the underwear drawer.
I think we can learn a lot from looking at this baker's dozen of opening lines. And while the first draft of a story might just be getting the ideas down, don't neglect a good close examination of the opening line come revision time. And going back to your existing opening lines and looking at them against these 5 elements, how do they hold up? After all, that opening line is your first and best chance to hook the reader.
These stunning first lines come from...
1) “A Weird, Beautiful Thing” by Kelle Schillaci Clarke
2) “Shy, Solitary Animals” by Kristin Bonilla
3) “Bride School Girls” by Amanda Churchill
4) “The Performer” by Rebecca Ackermann
5) “The Brad Pitt Method” by Abbie Barker
6) “17” by Tara Stillions Whitehead
7) “Becoming” by Kyra Kondis
8) “The Falling Baby” by John Jodzio
10) “Please Don’t Touch the Art” by Arvin Ramgoolam
11) “Luxembourg” by Rick White
12) “Her Teeth” by Eliot Li
13) “Tokyo Pearl” by Teresa Plana