How to begin writing a story? I’ve heard people ask this question so many times on blog sites dedicated to writing, and it always makes me stop and wonder what the bother is all about. But, of course, that sounds like I know what I’m talking about. That I know how to start writing a story, but I’d be leading you up the garden path if I said I really knew. Starting a story isn’t as simple as it sounds, but there’s a way to make the opening sentence the best opening sentence.
Starting a story is basically writing the opening sentence, right? But what should be said in the opening sentence? Whatever you want. Simple. According to K. M. Weiland, however, the opening sentence is your first and last chance to grab your reader’s attention and give them a reason to read your story. Yet, opening lines tend not to be very memorable, says Weiland. Why the seeming contradiction? The fact that you keep reading the book after reading the forgettable opening line, I suspect, says something about the opening sentence.
Weiland says there are four, not three, or two, or one, but four steps to a riveting opening sentence. I want to have a look at some of the books I’ve read, and my own novels and short stories and compare them, and see how well the authors of my favourite reads and I have managed to achieve Weiland’s four steps, or not. The four steps:
- Ask a question, either explicitly or implicitly
- Introduce a character
- Offer (at least) a sense of setting
- Set the tone
Ok, let’s see how well some of my favourite reads and my own stories score.
‘The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp.’
The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum, 1980
Beginning with Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, let’s see if it contains all four of Weiland’s ingredients. The short answer is maybe. It doesn’t ask an explicit question, but perhaps a few implicit questions. Why is the trawler plunging into angry swells of a dark, furious sea? Well, that’s what boats do. But perhaps there’s another reason why it’s contesting such seas. Perhaps it’s in a hurry to get somewhere? Like out of the storm. It doesn’t introduce a character, either. Not unless the trawler is considered a character. But no. The trawler is not a character in the story. It offers a sense of setting, though. ‘The angry swells of the dark, furious sea’ is a setting. Perhaps it’s a metaphor? This idea of battling the elements to survive is kind of what happens to the character of Jason Bourne, the protagonist in The Bourne Identity. But this is also the tone of the novel, angry and furious. It sets the tone. So it gets a score of 2.5 out of 4.
Ratking, Michael Dibdin, 1988
Next up is Michael Dibdin’s Ratking, which was made into a successful television series, by the way. I liked it. But then I like good detective stories. However, the opening sentence of Ratking is a sparse statement, indeed. ‘Hello?’ is what people usually say when they answer the phone. Perhaps it’s a question? Is anyone there? But it doesn’t explicitly provide any of the ingredients in Weiland’s list. Not unless ‘Hello?’ sets the tone? And a sense of setting? It is, however, a kind of question, isn’t it? It’s asking if there’s anyone there. And of course, there is. ‘Hello?’ begins a long and fascinating conversation between two characters in Ratking. Ok, so that’s 1.5 out of 4.
Sword Song, Bernard Cromwell, 2007
Next up is Bernard Cornwell’s Sword Song. And another sparse opening sentence. ‘Darkness’ doesn’t ask a question, but certainly sets the tone. A sense of setting too? Perhaps. Darkness is a noun. So maybe darkness asks an implicit question: why isn’t there any light? But it certainly sets the tone. An absence of light is like a metaphor for good and evil, perhaps. So I’ll give it 1.5 out of 4.
‘A Turkish heavyweight boxing champion sauntering down a Hamburg street with his mother on his arm can scarcely be blamed for failing to notice that he is being shadowed by a skinny boy in a black coat.’
A Most Wanted Man, John le Carré, 2008
John le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man asks a few implicit questions. Why is a skinny boy following a Turkish boxer accompanied by his mother? This is a very interesting question, indeed, and one that needs an answer. Almost demands it. It also introduces a character, in fact, three characters: the Turkish boxer, his mother, and a skinny boy. A Hamburg Street is the setting. The tone is one of mystery, and a touch of suspense.
‘It has been eighty-three years since the last thinking machines were destroyed in the Battle of Corrin, after which Faykan Butler took the name Corrino and established himself as the first Emperor of a new Imperium.’
Sisterhood of Dune, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, 2012
The Sisterhood of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson does ask an implicit question or two. If you want to know why it is 83 years after the last thinking machines were destroyed, then this is a question that needs an answer. But why Faykan Butler named himself after a battle – the Battle of Corrino – and declared himself the first Emperor of the new Imperium are also legitimate questions. It introduces a character, Faykan Butler. The setting is suggested in the palace of the Emperor, if there is one. The tone is serious and political.
To avoid the appearance of sexism – choosing only male authors to review – here are five female authors whose writing I also enjoy.
‘She woke in the dark.’
Naked in Death, J. D. Robb, 1995
Naked in Death by J. D. Robb generates implicit questions. Why is it dark? It’s similar to Bernard Cornwell’s Sword Song, isn’t. Where is the light? But it doesn’t explicitly introduce a character, only a ‘she’. A she can be a character, of course. But it’s almost a disembodied she; just gendered. A bedroom is implied as the setting: she woke. The tone is serious and a tad spooky.
‘Benton Wesley was taking off his running shoes in the kitchen when I ran into him, my heart tripping over fear and hate and remembered horror.’
Point of Origin, Patricia Cornwell, 1998
Point of Origin by Patricia Cornwell, certainly asks an implicit question. Written in the first person, we want to know why the character’s heart skips a beat in fear and hate, and why they remember horror at the sight of Benton Wesley. And just who the hell is Benton Wesley? It introduces the speaker and another character, Benton Wesley. The setting is a kitchen; a home, perhaps. And the tone is dark: shock and horror.
‘England, at last, in view: a small harbour settlement crouched on the shoreline.’
The Queen’s Sorrow, Suzannah Dunn, 2008
The Queen’s Sorrow, by Suzannah Dunn, asks an implicit question or two. Why is England being seen as a small harbour settlement? It’s a historical view, undoubtedly. And who is viewing this historical England, and why? It is written in the first person, implied by the invisible viewer. Unless England is the character, it is implied. A viewer is implied by the angle. The setting is the sea, or the coastline. The tone is serious and affecting – the sight of historical England as a settlement would have been a view to evoke wonder.
‘When Elena told people she was a vampire hunter, their first reaction was an inevitable gasp, followed by, “You go around sticking those sharp stakes in their evil putrid hearts?”’
Angel’s Blood, Nalini Singh, 2009
Angel’s Blood, by Nalini Singh, asks implicit and explicit questions. Why, for instance, is the speaker a vampire hunter? And why does she/he get an incredulous response? And why does she/he tell people they’re a vampire hunter? Written in the third person, it introduces Elena, a vampire hunter. The sense of a setting is seems a social event, like a party. The tone is playful, but with an underlying seriousness. Killing vampires is serious business.
‘She sits, this odd trophy of war, as neat as an obedient child, on a small stool in the corner of her cell.’
The Lady of the Rivers, Phillipa Gregory, 2011
Phillipa Gregory’s The Lady of the Rivers, asks a few implicit questions. Who is this trophy of war? And why does she sit on a stool? And why is she, a child no less, in a cell? An invisible ‘she’ is introduced – a prisoner of war. The setting is a prison cell. The tone is serious and grave, and political.
And now, as promised, the opening sentences in my novels and one short story.
‘For Dr Ryndeel Drinns, sitting around waiting to be interviewed for a job was not her idea of fun, even if it was for her dream job.’
Reciprocity, Robert M. Easterbrook, 2012
In Reciprocity, I ask a few implicit questions. Who is Dr Ryndeel Drinns? Why is she waiting to be interviewed for a job? Don’t doctors have jobs? Why does she want a new job? If she already has one. What she imagines will be the result of the interview? Being her dream job she probably expects to be successful; she’d be making extra effort to get it. It introduces the main character, Dr Ryndeel Drinns. The setting is a passageway outside an interview room in a corporate-like building. The tone is serious and testy, and a touch intrigue.
‘Vidocq Verone sat in the charcoal-grey darkness of his Pajero, as he’d done many times, and wondered whether tonight would be any different from the other nights he spent out here on the lookout for high strangeness.’
The Directive, Robert M. Easterbrook, 2013
In The Directive, I ask several implicit questions. Who is Vidocq Verone? Why is he sitting in the dark in his car? Why does he regularly do this? And why is he waiting to see high strangeness? The main character is introduced, Vidocq Verone, a Private Investigator. The setting is night, and a lonely country road in the bush. The tone is weird, spooky and serious.
‘The dark, starry dome above the city of Xintito was alive with the language of battle.’
The Subjugation, Robert M. Easterbrook, 2013
In The Subjugation, I ask a few implicit questions. Who is fighting whom? And why? I don’t introduce a main character, as much as a city – though it introduces one the minor characters indirectly. The setting is a city, Xintito, and the space above. The tone is serious and grave, and perhaps hopeless.
‘Ocean Thyme and her girlfriend, Jacinta Fleming, cheered for their favourite Roller Derby team like there’d always be days like this.’
Ocean Thyme, Robert M. Easterbrook, 2014-15
In Ocean Thyme, I ask a few implicit questions. Who is Ocean Thyme? Why does she have a girlfriend? What’s Roller Derby? Why do the girls think there may not be happy, celebratory days, like this, in the future? I introduce the main character (Ocean) and a minor character (Jacinta). The setting is a Roller Derby event. The tone is happy and celebratory, and a tad curious.
‘Arriving at Aestralus 13, the Intrepid B dropped out of hyperspace.’
Aestralus 13, a short story, Robert M. Easterbrook, 2012
In my short story, Aestralus 13, I ask a few implicit questions. What is the Intrepid B? What is Aestralus 13? And why is the Intrepid B going to Aestralus 13? It does not introduce any character(s), but implies there are; they’re in the Intrepid B spaceship and on the planet, Aestralus 13. The setting is the space around Aestralus 13. The tone is serious and mysterious.
As you can see by the above examples, the opening sentence is anything but straightforward. And, few people seem to strive to do what Weiland suggests. Not that what she says in wrong, far from it. Just that the opening sentence can be written for any number of reasons. Robert Ludlum emphasised the stormy sea as a metaphor. Dibdin emphasised the drama of an opening statement in a phone call, the prelude to an extraordinary conversation. Cornwell emphasised a thing: darkness, as illusion. Le Carré emphasised a peculiar situation. Herbert and Anderson emphasised an imperial moment. Robb emphasised a spooky moment. Patricia Cornwell emphasised the darkness of humans: fear and horror. Dunn emphasised the wonder of an historical moment. Singh emphasised dark humour. Gregory emphasised the grave and dispirited. I have emphasised anticipation (Dr Drinns waiting to be interviewed), expectation (Verone is waiting to see high strangeness), desperation (the battle for Xintito), happiness (Ocean and her girlfriend at the Roller Derby event), and intrigue (the Intrepid B arrives at Aestralus 13).
But whatever the reason for writing a particular opening sentence, a certain amount of care should be given to its nature and content. Weiland is right, I think, in that unless there is a question, explicit or other, in the opening sentence, the reader may not be so easily hooked and keep reading. And the hook is another tale altogether.