By Veronica Helen Hart
The first few lines of a story must draw in a reader, make him or her want more, give an indication what the story will be about, and provide a promise as to what the reader should expect.
A man in a fedora is lurking in the shadows behind the bar below the flashing yellow neon light promises a different story than a lady sipping tea from delicate china in a drawing room carpeted in Persian rugs.
The more detail you can give your reader without overloading them with information, the more they’ll feel a part of the story. Imagine a book that begins with:
The girl opened the door and said hello to the woman.
Now imagine a book that begins with:
The small child reached up and, just able to reach the doorknob, opened the door for the police officer. She backed up and slipped in the blood on the ceramic tile of the dimly lit foyer.
Expand the view for the reader. The man in the fedora and the lady sipping tea could be in the same noir story. But if more is added to each opening, the setting becomes clearer:
The man in the fedora, who had been lurking in the shadows, moved out of the alley into the glare of traffic and streetlights on the busy avenue. The bar with the flashing yellow neon sign beckoned with its dark interior. He hoped it provided relief from the blaring horns and screaming sirens. He wrapped his gloved hand around the weapon in his pocket and pushed the door open.
The lady sitting in her parlor sipping tea doesn’t do much to entice a reader, even if she does own a Persian carpet. Adding more to her setting might draw in a reader:
Mrs. Ralston held a fragile teacup willing her hands not to tremble as she sipped the now tepid liquid. The man holding the bloody knife slid behind the draperies at the front window as her granddaughter unwittingly opened the front door.
Grateful he hadn’t seen the child, she pretended not to notice her when she came down the stairs still in her stockinged feet after her nap. She carefully took another sip as a police officer lifted the child and then held a finger to his lips, signaling Mrs. Ralston to remain silent. She did her best not to give any hint to the man behind the curtain that Lindsay had opened the door. Did he really think no one would notice all the blood?
I read that and I wonder what the heck is going on.
Reading those openings, I still don’t know what country or city the characters are in. I don’t know anything about their backgrounds, or what happened, but I’m darned curious about them.
I hope this helps both writers and readers understand why and how an opening can work.