It’s impossible to overstress the importance of a story’s opening. The first few paragraphs—even the first paragraph alone—of a piece of fiction are almost certain to be the deciding factor in whether a reader puts down their money or not. Ditto with an agent or editor, only more so. If those first lines aren’t doing exactly what they should, the reader will simply think, not for me, and move on to the next potential purchase.
The good news is that openings are actually easy: all an author has to do is keep the person reading. That’s all there is to it. Of course, good prose helps—those early paras need to be your best writing, free of typos or infelicities of grammar or syntax. But let’s assume you know how to do that.
For an opening to work, the writer needs to quickly do three things: (i) show that something’s happening; (ii) make the reader care about the outcome; and (iii) convince them that the writer knows what he or she is about, and that the reader’s time will be rewarded if they just keep reading. At the same time, a good writer will also be laying the foundations of scene, setting, and character.
Having something happening doesn’t mean you have to have slam-bang action from the first sentence—in fact, supplying wild action without giving the reader a reason to care is often a guaranteed fail, especially in the hands of young males writing fantasy. What’s needed is to raise a question in the reader’s mind and quickly follow up with a reason to care. If a story* begins,
Jim Conroy sat in the center of the tiny cabin, his worldly belongings arranged neatly on the bone-dry floorboards. A ritual invocation, perhaps, of a lost order.
this immediately raises a number of questions. Although the reader has no reason yet to care who Jim Conroy is, his action—arranging his wordly belongings neatly before him, and the hint that this is somehow connected to something vanished (a ‘lost order’)—suggests that something is going on, that he’s doing this for a purpose, and is likely to pique the reader’s interest enough to make them start the next paragraph:
A tattered old wallet: the slots which had once held platinum and titanium cards sagged empty, and three one-dollar bills occupied the equally dilated billfold area.
The reader now knows that Conroy was once well-off but has now stumbled on hard times. And as a person of at least average humanity, the reader will by now probably be starting to feel a little sorry for this guy, because, let’s face it, we all fear destitution. But what’s he doing in this tiny cabin, contemplating his belongings, and why? Is he going to kill himself? Jeez. Let’s read on.
His New York driver’s license mocked him from behind a dirty plastic window; the evaporation of his belief in the consensus that made driving possible had been one of the first, and certainly the most sudden, symptoms of his ruin. The inexplicable corruption of his reading and writing skills had followed shortly after.
Okay, now we know there’s something really weird going on. This Jim Conroy, whoever he is, is obviously in deep trouble, and an empty wallet may be the least of it. There’s a strong suggestion of mental illness, but the cumulative effect of the words ritual, ruin, and corruption, suggest something darker, more eldritch at work. The reader wants more…
A hook, therefore, needn’t be in-your-face drama. Anything that stirs the reader’s curiosity can work. Sometimes just a strong or unique enough narrative voice will do the trick. Take a strong narrative voice and combine that with a couple of well-chosen question seeds, and you can craft a really compelling opening, such as the following from Roger Zelazny’s ‘Isle of the Dead’:
Life is a thing—if you’ll excuse a quick dab of philosophy before you know what kind of picture I’m painting—that reminds me quite a bit of the beaches around Tokyo Bay.
Now, it’s been centuries since I saw that Bay and those beaches, so I could be off quite a bit. But I’m told that it hasn’t changed much, except for the condoms, from the way that I remember it.
There follows a two-page—two pages!—passage of descriptive reminiscence and philosophizing in which Zelazny slowly reinforces his metaphor, eventually tying it up with the narrator’s present predicament. This strategy—hijacking the reader at the get-go and taking them on a detour via two pages of descriptive matter after just two introductory paras—has to be one of the ballsiest in the history of science fiction.
Why does it work? Because in those two brief, introductory paras, Zelazny has both hit you with a first-person narrative voice as confident as any Greek tragedist and planted a couple of hooks so powerful (a narrator centuries old, and the sly but purposeful mention of condoms) that you’ll almost certainly stick around to hear him out.
A reader’s attention is a fragile thing in the first page or two of a story; once further into the book, by which time you’ll have hopefully convinced them that you know where you’re going and have the skills to make the trip worthwhile, the reader is less easily thrown and will cut you more slack for digression, picture-painting, windy philosophizing, and the like: but at the beginning, your job is simply to snag the reader’s attention and lead them unresisting into your world.
*Taken from my own short story, “Appalachian Fall.”