There are as many ways to open a story as there are storytellers, but all have the same goal, to pull the reader into the tale. The opening lines establish tone also, dark or light, humorous or not. The general rule is to establish a normal world that is upset, and the results of the “upset” are the story. For example, Dashiell Hammett opens The Maltese Falcon with a description of Sam Spade.
We get a very clear impression of Sam Spade, and we read on to find out just how much like Satan he really is. But we are warned that the story will have a light hand, a little humor, as we go.
Anthony Trollope gives us a different kind of opening in The Eustace Diamonds, but his own view of his heroine is there also.
“It was admitted by all her friends, and also by her enemies—who were in truth the more numerous and active body of the two—that Lizzie Greystock had done very well with herself.”
We surmise that Lizzie has risen above her station, and not everyone approves of her or how she’s achieved this. Trollope reinforces this view of her throughout the introduction, so we know exactly how he feels, along with everyone else.
By contrast, M.C. Beaton introduces her private detective in Dishing the Dirt this way.
“After a dismal grey winter, spring came to the village of Carsely in the Cotswolds, bringing blossoms, blue skies and warm breezes.
“But somewhere, in the heart of one private detective, Agatha Raisin, storms were brewing.”
This is a gentler lead-in but the promise is there. Into this bucolic world of natural beauty comes darkness, and a woman determined to combat crime. This gentle opening is the opposite of that in Louise Penny’s The Nature of the Beast.
“Running, running, stumbling, running.
“Arm up against the wiry branches whipping his face. He didn’t see the root. He fell, hands splayed into the moss and mud. His assault rifle dropped and bounced and rolled from sight.”
In these short lines, we feel the terror, the sense of desperation and helplessness, and the danger compounded by falling.
All the beginning lines are tight, focused, and revealing of the way the story will be told. This is what every writer hopes to achieve in his or her opening. Sometimes this means rewriting the passage a dozen times.
In my current work-in-progress, I struggled with the opening lines. In the end, as I neared the climax of the plot, I could see better how to link the end with the beginning. And once I had that, the opening also became clearer. The first line I settled on is this:
“On the third night Felicity lifted the shotgun from its place in the cabinet, and this time she loaded it.”
The following lines describe the previous two nights, and why this night she is loading her weapon.
I rarely begin a story or novel with a perfect opening line. Instead, I return to the first sentence again and again, as the story takes shape and the direction becomes clearer. I might rewrite the opening a dozen times, but when I finally get the perfect first line, everything else falls into place.