What Makes a Strong Opening?

Almost anybody who’s done a lot of reading can give you an example of an opening that hooked them right away, and we all know how important it is to grab a reader’s attention right off the bat. But what is it that makes a strong opening? In my opinion, a great opening needs to have one or more of the characteristics I list below, and I’ve collected some of my own favourite openings (and some from the lovely Twitter writing community!) to use as examples.

It throws you right into the plot

This is the obvious one, right? Arguably, if you have to pick just one element to make your opening stand out, what you want is for it to immediately launch the reader into the storyline. There’s something to be said for starting a story smack-bang in the middle of the action and, while it can be difficult to pull off without people feeling lost, it can make for a really exciting beginning.

 “Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.” – Philip Pullman, Northern Lights

This gives us two characters right away, and puts us right in the middle of their sneaking around. I also think it’s a nice touch that Hall is capitalised; it tells us something about the place they’re sneaking through. The building is important, and so the fact that Lyra and her daemon aren’t supposed to be there is all the more intriguing.

“‘Take your clothes off.’
Rin blinked. ‘What?’
The proctor glanced up from his booklet. ‘Cheating prevention protocol.’” – R. F. Kuang, The Poppy War

The main character, we know before the end of the first sentence, is in a situation where her privacy is completely irrelevant. We also get the information that she’s on the verge of taking some kind of test and, given the extent the proctor is willing to go to in order to prevent cheating, an important one at that. This is a kind of opening that I love, it’s like having a box of puzzle pieces upended in front of me. How can you resist trying to piece them together?

“It was my aunt who decided to give me to the dragon.” – Jessica Day George, Dragon Slippers

Any story that opens with a dragon is a win for me (this won’t be the last mention of a dragon in these examples!) and this is no exception. It’s not just about the mention of a dragon though. This opening sentence is matter-of-fact, and there’s an enormous amount of information suggested in the background. “The” dragon, as opposed to “a” dragon tells us the creature is a known entity, and “give” rather than “feed”, plus the fact that it was a family member who made the decision, could imply that this isn’t the death sentence a reader might assume. Or maybe it is! We don’t know, but it sounds like we’re about to find out, and that’s exciting.

It provides a strong sense of character

I’ve talked a lot about how important I think it is to have an interesting protagonist and know them as well as you can, partly because for me it’s one of the most important elements of a book. I know this is subjective, but for me personally my interest (or lack thereof) in the main character is probably the biggest factor in my enjoyment of a book. So: I absolutely love an opening that tells me I’m going to enjoy spending time with this protagonist.

“When I first got here – when they brought me here – a man with blue pans and a matching shirt, both of which looked like they were made of paper, asked me questions. As I answered, he took notes, balancing a clipboard against his left hip and holding a pen in his right hand. I’m left-handed, so that’s something we didn’t have in common.” – Alyssa Sheinmel, A Danger to Herself and Others

The adjustments, the specificity of the observations, the way the narrator seems to be looking for points of difference rather than things they might share with this man: all of these indicate we have here a character who doesn’t play nicely with others. There’s intelligence demonstrated, and attention to detail, and a certain coldness. It all combines to pique my curiosity. I want to learn more about this character and the situation they’re in.

It describes a captivating setting

This might not seem like the most effective way to grab a reader, but I think an opening sentence or paragraph that paints a vivid picture of a world or environment can be a really strong start to a story. While this may be especially true in fantasy, where you may be introducing readers to a whole new world, I don’t think it’s limited to that. There’s something about reading a description of the familiar that paints it in a brand-new light which I think can really hook people. Or really hook me, at any rate!

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, turned to a dead channel.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer

This not only paints a clear visual picture, but in this very concise sentence it also gives a clear sense of the mood that hangs over this opening. “A dead channel” suggests, obviously, a certain lifelessness, but to my mind at least it also suggests the frenetic buzz of static in the background. This opening is beautifully atmospheric, and it makes me want to go out and buy the book.

It raises compelling questions

This one kind of goes along with the other points I’ve made, but I’ve given it its own because I think there’s something about the mysterious or slightly weird openings that sets them apart. The ones that make you go, “Hang on… what?” and suck you immediately in to find out more.

 “On the second Sabbat of Twelfthmoon, in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky.” – Laini Taylor, Strange the Dreamer

“Sabbat,” “Twelfthmoon,” “Weep.” Beautiful words, combining to paint a picture of another world, followed by the stark simplicity of, “a girl fell from the sky.” I feel like this raises a huge number of questions, both about the world this girl existed in and the reasons for her falling.

“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.” – Naomi Novik, Uprooted

I told you there would be another dragon. I love that this one is ‘our’ Dragon, and the narrator is defending him right away. The narrator doesn’t say the Dragon isn’t dangerous, and he does “take” girls, which tells us that this is happening against their will. But at least (I feel strongly that the ‘at least’ there is strongly implied) he doesn’t eat the girls. So then, what does he do with them? And what does he offer in exchange that makes the narrator want to stand up for him? We have to read on to learn more!

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” – Iain Banks, The Crow Road

… I really think this one speaks for itself! Literally exploded, or figuratively? And in either case… why?

What are your favourite story openings?

Some of these are from books I’ve read, some are recommendations from others, and I’m always looking for more of those! So, tell me: what are your favourite book openings, and what do you love about them? What do you think are the most important elements of a strong opening?

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