Opening Lines…and first impressions

“Once upon a time…” – Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm


This morning I was reading an article on the best opening lines in the history of the novel and got to thinking about how important they are: be it in a novel or a short story.

After the cover, after the back-copy blurb, how many times have I decided whether I read a book by reading its first line? If I’m feeling really attentive I may go as far as reading the first paragraph, but so often it’s the very first line of a new piece of work that can fire my imagination up to decide whether I buy it or not.

Here’s five opening lines that have, at some point in my life, all sucked me right in…

  • “‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White
  • “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” – The Outsiders, SE Hinton
  • “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.” A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler
  • “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation.” The Secret History,  Donna Tartt
  • “There aren’t many private eyes in Belfast, and now, apparently, there’s one fewer.” Mystery Man, Colin Bateman

There’s not a whole lot of similarity between them – they vary by genre, by age, and by how much they tell you about the story which is to follow, but all of them worked for me. And in each case, I went on to really enjoy the tale which came after them, which of course isn’t always the case. There’s another article somewhere to be written about the best opening lines with the worst succeeding tale, but not for today.

Short story openings are different in some ways; it could be argued they don’t have to be quite so striking as the time being invested in them is less. Alternatively, you could say they have to work all the more, because they’re part of a much more contained set of words. Get that story started, and don’t hang around damn it…

I thought about all of the above when I was doing the final self-edit of my new collection of short stories You Could Make a Killing and whether they made an impression, then I looked back at Basement Tales, my first collection, and wondered how they held up. Here are a couple of opening lines from Basement Tales:

  • Afterwards, when the whole horrible mess was over, they asked anyone they could find who had ever had anything to do with him if they could remember when it started. (Afterwards)
  • If you were needing to come into our town you’d drive two hours into the middle of the heart of nowhere, turn right at the graveyard for the horse of Putnam (it used to be a one – horse town, but things went downhill back there at the end of the ‘70’s…), drive on for another hour or so and you might find us. (First Born)

And then I started looking through some of the short stories I’ve put together for You Could Make a Killing. Here’s three from there:

  • Louis Green left the dead body where no one could get at it unless they really wanted to and set off for home. (Dr. Death)
  • When the number reached 31 Patrick Olsen decided enough was enough and he had to do something about it. (Kill Your Speed)
  • It was just after eleven, on a cold November night, when I came across the man on the bridge. (Earning Wings B#2)

Hopefully there’s something there that’ll entice you in: Basement Tales is out now, and You Could Make a Killing will be released in a fortnight’s time – follow me here on the blog, or on Twitter (@simonbewick) for more information coming soon.


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