Opening Sentences for Stories: Ingredients for a Bestseller

Opening sentences play a huge role in engaging the reader and inviting them to read the rest of the story.

A lot of writers find it difficult to write an opening sentence that gets the reader’s attention.

However, you don’t have to go out of your way to interest your readers. You don’t necessarily have to drop a bomb on your readers to get their attention. There are just so many ways of making them take notice and getting them to read the rest of the story.

Even though it’s not necessary to fuss over opening sentences every time, I still believe that one can use their first sentence to connect to the reader and make them want to keep reading; therefore, it’s an essential element of your story writing.

I’m a fan of the ‘once upon a time’ type of story starters, but I don’t think that it’s the only way to start your story. Plus, there are a lot of readers that think that it’s bland to start this way.

Let’s explore great opening sentences and how you can come up with interesting introductory lines for your stories.

opening sentences for stories ingredients for a bestseller

10 Great Opening Sentences for Stories

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”  Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler. 

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. 

 “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” Tracks by Louise Erdrich.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” Waiting by Ha Jin.

great first lines display
A library wall displays great opening sentences. (Image credit: “Great First Lines Display” by Pesky Librarians on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“I remember the day I was born, the day of my recent birth.” I Remember the Day I Was Born by Kemi Ogunniyi.

“The story so far: in the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams.

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board” Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” 1984 by George Orwell.

Why Should Your Story Have a Great Opening Sentence?

For starters, editors and literary agents start with opening sentences. If your wish is to get published by traditional publishing houses, you cannot start messing up from the beginning. You’ve got to charm them before their capitalistic minds start taking over (before they start thinking about book sales), and that begins with the first line.

First impressions are vital in storytelling. So, even if you want to self-publish, you still have to impress the reader. The opening sentence is also crucial in this regard. The connection that the first sentence makes with the reader keeps the reader wanting more from the story.

How to Write a Strong Opening Sentence?

The first sentence has to make a strong first impression. It must be enticing enough for the reader to continue reading.

Going back to the ten examples, you can see that they are witty, riveting, and entirely unexpected.

I cannot tell what exactly should be in your opening line for it to create a strong impression; however, I can serve you tips on the general ingredients.

A great opening line needs to:

  • Make a connection with the reader. It has to elicit an emotional response from the reader
  • Begin at the peak of intensity. To quickly create an emotional connection with the reader, the opening sentence needs to start with the most emotive part of the story.
  • Go all out and be bold. Sometimes, you have to be aggressive and punch through the veil, but don’t be cocky.
  • Be honest and relatable. Making readers feel like the story is genuine and bears a resemblance to their life can ‘engross’ them. Like when Dodie Smith wrote, ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,’ I envisioned her or myself sitting in the kitchen. So, she successfully engaged me, the reader.

Writing a great opening line isn’t as easy as it seems, but the secret lies in understanding your readership. If you’re just starting, understand your genre. All in all, there’s a rule that most writers follow: if it sounds good to you, it’ll sound good to at least one reader.

The Do’s and DON’Ts of a Good Introduction

There are things that writers do in their introductory passage(s) that just—outright—destroys the entire story.

However, some things make the introduction enticing.

Here are some of the DO’s and DON’Ts of a great introduction.

DON’Ts

When writing an introduction, you SHOULD NOT:

1. Summarize the story

The first paragraph isn’t meant to sum up the whole narrative of the story—you’re not creating an abstract; rather, you’re inviting the reader in.

2. Slap the reader with an unrelated story

There’s nothing more annoying than a story that derails right from the beginning. You don’t necessarily need to start the story from the beginning, but you also don’t have to start with an unrelated story or event.

3. Spill too much Juice

If you’re starting from the middle or a later stage in the story, make sure that you don’t create any spoilers. Don’t go into too much detail.

4. Be wordy and too long

Books like ‘A River Runs Through It,’ ‘The Sot-Weed Factor,’ and “A Tale of Two Cities” used long lines to start their stories.

But these are extraordinary Authors and they used those long sentences effectively. If you’re not that good, it might be in your best interest to prevent long opening lines. You might end up with wordy and unreadable opening sentences.

What a way to lose your readers.

the don'ts of a good introduction
The DON’Ts Of A Good Introduction.

DO’s

When writing an introduction, you SHOULD:

1. Be concise

You could follow the previous three long-winded examples but you have to be sure that you can do it adeptly. 

Concise, clear sentences are good if you want to grab your readers’ attention quickly.

2. Use Impactful language

You should know that language is the medium that you’re using to tell your story; therefore, you should use language that adds weight and helps create that much-needed strong impression.

3. Use your devices efficiently

Make sure that you use verbs surgically and adverbs and adjectives sparingly. Overusing adverbs weakens your writing (it sort of gives diminishing returns), and by frequently using adjectives, you tell a lot more than you show (you break the sacred law of fiction writing.

4. Use an effective tone

You don’t have to inject lightning and thunder into the opening sentence for it to have a strong impression. You can use a smooth, settled tone and still your readers.

the do's of a good introduction
The DO’s Of A Good Introduction

What Does a Good Introduction Do?

1. Gets the reader’s attention

 A good introduction hooks the reader immediately. I can’t emphasize this enough. Your introduction MUST hook the reader. It has to invite them in or lure them—grab the reader’s attention and make them want to read the next line.

There isn’t a particular recipe for creating an opening sentence that hooks the reader, but there are some things that are surely going to get readers interested.

  • Using the most interesting scene or story from the book as the opening passage?
  • Writing a sentence that has some very interesting factual information—documented history, folktale, or science.
  • Using content that appeals to your particular readership. Something your readers may care about, be captivated with, or something that might surprise them.

2. Get the reader invested

the beginning of your story should hook its readers and makes them want to read more.
The beginning of your story should hook its readers and makes them want to read more.

The first line gets the reader’s attention. Job well done. The rest of the introductory paragraph has another job to do—convince the reader that this is the story they need to read.

Your introduction has to have stories that strike a chord with the readers by relating to their joys, conflicts, problems, or general situations.

Writing an introduction that gets the reader invested requires knowing the readers a bit. To connect so deep that the reader gets invested in the story, you have to describe relatable situations.

3. Takes a snapshot of the story’s flood tide

In one of the tips on cooking a good opening sentence, I talked about starting from the peak (climax). An introduction that starts from the middle or highest point of the story gives the reader a vivid picture of the story. If they like it, they’re not dropping the book.

An introduction that offers the reader a scintilla of the climax cannot work on its own. The climax has to be good for the reader to like its snapshot.

4. Promises the reader a basket of goodies

A good intro sells dreams to the readers. Afterward, it’s the writer’s job to make sure that they didn’t sell pipe dreams.

When I read a novel, the introduction tells me a lot about the story and the author’s skill set. The introduction, alone, tells me whether the author is good and whether I should expect great storytelling or not.

Why You MUST Write Your Opening Sentence Last

Writing the introduction seems to be the hardest part of book writing for many writers. For some, it’s because they literally start from the beginning, and it’s during a time that they know very little about the entire story.

The thing is, the way we outline our stories isn’t exactly how everything goes down in the story. Once you start writing the story, a lot of things change—some characters tell you they want to do this, you kill off some characters, you fit in some scenes that you didn’t plan for, or a bunch of things that can happen between the outlining and writing.

So, it’s easier to come up with a captivating, witty, or effective opening sentence if you already know how the story and the specific events therein are going to pan out.

Knowing these things enables you to spill some juice in the introduction or manipulate the narrative to make the introduction so enticing.

Lessons from Famous Authors On Good Story Starters

There are lots of lessons to be gotten from books authored by literary greats. I have picked only three examples to illustrate these lessons.

Using Plain Hooks

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

In this story starter, Dickens indiscreetly invites us to read on to find out what happens in the story. He hooks us by not telling or implying whether he’s the hero or not. That is interesting because curiosity gets the better of us and pushes us to read on up to a point where we can make our own judgments about what he said in the opening sentence.

Cunning! Very cunning.

Double-barrelled Introductions

the catcher in the rye
The Catcher in the Rye. (Image credit: “catcher-in-the-rye-cover” by [email protected] on Flickr CC BY 2.0)

In his novel, The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger starts with: 

‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it if you want to know the truth.’

This opening sentence serves two purposes: it introduces us to the cynical and sarcastic narrator and gives us bits of his childhood.  

Using Irresistible Enigmatic Lines

Enigmatic opening sentences leave us (readers) with a lot of questions: what is this talking about? How is this going to happen?

Anne Tyler used this in her book, Back When We Were Grownups. She started by saying,

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”

This sentence invites us to continue reading to find out how the woman ‘turned into the wrong person’ and how she discovered that.

Those are subtle ‘how questions’ that lure us into the story.

Opening Sentences Top pick

The top pick has to be the opening line in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, ‘The story so far: in the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.’

My Final Comments on Opening Sentences

Throughout the entire article, I have emphasized the importance of crafting good opening sentences. I’d like to add that although they are important, they are neither sufficient nor are they requisites of a great story.

Having said that, I would also like to say that opening sentences might be the difference between you and that bestseller tag (yes, most of us write because of that tag).

About Jessica Majewski

Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.

She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.