Wake Your Protagonist: Opening Lines

Some great opening lines chosen at random:

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. —Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

It was the day my grandmother exploded. —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.  —L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

These writers hooked their audience with those first lines, so much so that years later these first lines are listed among the greatest of their kind, to which emerging writers might aspire. What do you think makes these combinations of words enthrall a reader?

Authors have lamented publicly for decades, for centuries, about the difficulties of creating that first sentence. The story might come to them all in one quick blazing shot — knowledge of the characters’ motivations, the dramatic climax, all of it. But that first line! No.

How do you fair with those early words? Do you find introducing your story to the audience the easiest part of the process or the part where you’d stick a hot poker in your eye if promised such an act would make the creative juices flow?

Here are some openers from poems and stories I completed this year — some of my favorites.

She clattered into the classroom
every time, with hair coiled like smoke,
brows drawn low — thunderclouds
of pure reproach.
That woman missed her true calling. She belts out a series of screams that would shame Hollywood’s most famous horror movie queens. She won’t stop. Can’t stop.
Gardenia petals litter a narrow walkway meant for the bride. This is her mother’s house—a pretty little cottage surrounded by blazing azaleas and big, gnarled oaks.
Three thousand feet above Alaskan wilderness, Max Key is having a fine morning.

These are rarities — they seemed to write themselves. Not only rare because of the ease with which they came, but also because those first words inspired me to keep writing, to discover what happened next. I have another story that I’ve been trying to write for almost five years. Several things trip me up about this piece of fiction, truth be told, however, that BEGINNING. Ugh. I just can’t make a decision!!

Should it open with the scene in which a good friend is frantically pounding on the door, begging for Holly to respond from the other side? She’s locked herself in a bathroom. It’s obvious something terrible has happened, and in the aftermath of the tragedy, that friend fears Holly is locked herself away with a medicine cabinet filled with items that might help put her out of her misery.

Or, should it open with Holly’s own voice? The original version I wrote was a series of journal entries in which the protagonist tells of slowly becoming aware of the world ending — the normalcy, the quiet, the flood of memories bombarding her mind’s eye as she returns to a city once considered home. And then all hell breaks loose.

It wasn’t long before I decided to toss the “journal” style, but I still want to keep the protagonist in first person. OH MY GOD THIS IS DRIVING ME INSANE.

So! How’s your opening lines for “Waking Up In Outer Space” coming? Let’s discuss!

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3 Responses to Wake Your Protagonist: Opening Lines

  1. Reblogged this on generationKathy and commented:

    How do you fair with those early words? Do you find introducing your story to the audience the easiest part of the process or the part where you’d stick a hot poker in your eye if promised such an act would make the creative juices flow? Join the discussion!


  2. Pingback: The Name of the Wind – Another Book Review | Brigit's Flame Writing Community

  3. I have no lines. I have a page of answers and questions (as I noted in my Chatter). It is poking around in my head. I don’t know about first lines — they just sort of happen. I should look at that.

    Liked by 1 person

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