Tenants of the House

Some good rumination over opening sentences in a post by Paul Jessup, who links to one by Jay Lake, who links to one by Richard Parks, who links to one by Andy Duncan.

Writers writing about writing don’t always write stuff which is interesting to passersby, but this sort of shop talk (about beginnings, endings, story-architecture, etc.) also interests me as a reader, so I thought I’d indulge myself here. Also, it’s certainly less dull than posting about Heroes again (in summary: now the shark is jumping the show) or complaining about the latest LJ squeakfest I’ve become entangled in.

So: there are three ways to start a story, as I see it.

You grab the reader by the ear with a conversational opener that lures him into a conspiracy with the storyteller: “Call me Ishmael.”

You grab the reader by the eye with a sensory description that begs for further narration and explanation: “The doorknob opened a blue eye and winked at him.”

You push the reader off a cliff so that she finds herself swimming in the thick of the action: “The Skydiver dropped out of hyperspace an even million miles above the neutron star.”

Stories that take a couple of pages to hook the reader usually won’t. But it may be a mistake, as Jay Lake suggests, to try too hard. I like his last lines about first lines: “the first sentence will be what it is. The more you can load there, the better, but don’t force it. Stories, like wine or cheese, have to breathe.”

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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6 Responses to Tenants of the House

  1. dindrane says:

    Hmm, interesting information and worth extensive thought. Thanks!

    Now I’m going to go back over some of my first lines and see if they can be tightened… my problem is usually *keeping* them interested.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I was well hooked the other day by a story that started with a few mundane sentences. Two guys sitting around doing normal stuff. Then the fourth and last sentence of the opening paragraph, without changing the mundane voice of the passage, turned the world upside down.

    Giving it some thought afterward, I realized that’s a fairly common approach. Apparently this one had just the right levels of lulling and blindsiding.

    –Jeff Stehman

  3. sboydtaylor says:

    I would qualify #2 and #3 as the same type of opener — the type that Robert Nelsen says you need: an opening that grabs the reader’s attention and forces them to read.

    • JE says:

      Maybe they should be 2a and 2b. I feel like the reader gets a different effect from a vivid physical description and from a striking plot event (although the Kuttner example has both). Still, mere description without plot import doesn’t necessarily belong anywhere on the hook… Worth mulling over: thanks.

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