Exploring the art of prose


Opening Lines

The start to a story is so important. It’s what draws the reader in, it’s what sets the stage for everything to come. When we read stories (and especially when we read submissions!), an arresting first line can capture our attention like nothing else. As Melissa Yancy says in her Author’s Note for her story “Dog Years”: “I like strong openings and intriguing first lines. (I’ve fought for some lines that might not have always served a story perfectly but that would get that story pulled out of the slush pile. Openings matter.)”

We decided to take a look at the opening lines to some of the stories in our library, to see how they operate and why they are effective. They’re varied, for sure, but there’s so much to be learned from a strong opening line. How can you use these examples to strengthen your own beginnings?

 “The tournament is the highlight of our year at the Simmler School, figuratively and literally: Abe Larson, math teacher and advisor to the tech club, uses acid-bright bulbs in the auditorium spotlights.”

“The Renaissance Person Tournament,” Clare Beams

The title here is complicated, and we may not understand what it means. So Beams locates us, immediately: we’re in a school—possibly a private school—with teachers and clubs and auditoriums. The sentence is compound and complex, with dependent clauses, so we get a sense that the story, too, will live in a fully developed world. The narrator (or narrators?) is somehow part of this community and seems to have a history here as well.

“Twenty years had passed since I’d last seen the Beast.”

“The Beast,” Megan Cummins

Nothing’s better than an opening line that makes us want to learn more: Who is the Beast? What is the Beast? Is the narrator Beauty? Why have twenty years gone by? Cummins nicely places us in time and sets up the framework of a past and a present. She also clues us in to the first-person perspective, although we don’t yet know who the narrator is. It’s a nice, short sentence that begs us to read more.

Kay, Kay, come closer.”

“A Slim Blade of Air,” Alice Elliott Dark

A line of dialogue can be an intriguing, and yet a risky, way to start a story. In the hands of a lesser writer, it can be confusing because we don’t know who is speaking. It works here because it’s almost as though the line of dialogue is speaking to the reader as well: pay attention, it’s saying, this voice is important. Kay is important. The use of the imperative adds to that sense of drawing us in. And then there are the italics: what does that mean? We sense that it’s not typical dialogue, but we don’t yet know how to interpret it.

“And suddenly then everyone was getting married.”

“Isn’t It Big? Isn’t It Nice?,”  Jonathan Durbin

There’s something very arresting about starting a story with the word “And.” We’re starting mid-conversation, perhaps, or mid-thought. It’s an intimate gesture that speaks to the relationship between the narrator and the reader. The rest of the sentence puts us in familiar territory: that time in one’s life when every weekend is another wedding. And “suddenly” is the way that it feels when time speeds up, when our lives move from one stage to the next. Durbin does so much in seven words.

“Louisa twisted herself in the cord of the old black wall phone.”

“The Station,” Elizabeth Gaffney

This is such a wonderful, visual image. It tells us, perhaps, that this is not a contemporary story, because there aren’t too many landlines left, much less wall phones! It also gives us a sense of who Louisa is: she is someone who wraps herself up in a phone cord. We get the feeling that this may be the type of person Louisa is as well: someone who worries and frets, someone who isn’t yet comfortable in her own skin.

“Tana is dating a person who calls herself The Red Spirit of Joy.”

“Vacations,” Megan Giddings

Such great mystery here: who would call herself by such a name? The name is vivid and unique; there’s something magical about this story, right from the start. Giddings provides us with the name of her protagonist as well as her relationship status, and the present tense serves to put us right in the moment of the story. This is happening in real time, and we’ll be uncovering the mystery and the magic along with the narrator.

“His daughter’s first horse came from a traveling carnival where children rode him in miserable clockwise circles.”

“Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses,” Bret Anthony Johnston

There’s such a sense of a journey in this first sentence. The carnival is traveling, and the horse was ridden in circles. It’s the first horse that belongs to the daughter of the unnamed protagonist, so we understand there were others, and therefore, that time has passed. The adjective “miserable” is the only adjective in the sentence which carries judgment, and it tells us so much about the protagonist and the way he feels about horses.

“In a matter of weeks, it seemed, Stewart’s mother had become obsessed with the dog.”

“The Lure,” Matthew Lansburg

Here, we’re given just enough information to intrigue us. Why is Stewart’s mother obsessed with the dog? The construction of the sentence, with “it seemed” interjected between the two clauses, tells us something about the way that the narrator thinks, that the narrator qualifies his or her observations; it speaks to an adult narrator, not a child. It seems possible that obsessions may play a role in this story; we also begin to get the sense that the relationship between Stewart and his mother may be complicated, and not without humor.

“Be God. Step way back for a second.”

“Be God,” Michael McGriff

OK, we cheated here a little and took at a look at the first two lines, as the first one echoes the title. The imperative voice is always interesting, as it sets up a direct relationship between the narrator and the reader. It’s also not a typical voice to encounter so it makes us pay attention. The directive to step back, also, paradoxically, pulls us in tighter, and gives a sense of the scope of the piece.

“The Berger family is in a big box store, one they have driven several miles out of their West L.A. neighborhood to find, and the cart is piled so high Ellen has finally conceded to getting another.”

“Dog Years,” Melissa Yancy 

In her Author’s Note, Yancy tells us “I would never recommend to a writer they open a story in a Target store, shopping in the cereal aisle.” It works here because Yancy’s doing so much all at once: she establishes the family, and within the family, the character Ellen. We’re firmly situated in place—both within the store and in LA—and this is a family that needs not one, but two carts at the store, and we all know how large those carts are. Perhaps most interestingly, Ellen is the type of person who would initially push back against getting another cart, telling us something crucial about who she is.

by Laura Spence-Ash