Four Functions of Amazing Opening Lines

The perfect opening line embodies the magic of authorial voice, blended with heartfelt experience, stirred with striking prose, shaken with a mysterious essence beyond our comprehension, then poured carefully over ice.

Just kidding. Effective opening lines perform a handful of functions that are surprisingly straightforward. Get to know these functions, and you’ll start recognizing them in famous first lines yourself. Then, you’re only a step away from creating amazing opening lines for your own stories.

1. Suggesting Conflict

You probably already know that conflict keeps the reader entertained, and it’s the main ingredient in an effective story hook. So it should be no surprise that most famous first lines have conflict.

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” — The Trial by Franz Kafka

While lines like the one above throw the reader right into a conflict, that can make it difficult for writers to set up the story. It’s more common for strong first lines to foreshadow problems on their way.

“Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.” — The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Many famous lines also declare that a conflict has already occurred. The narrator might even describe their own death. Readers will expect the writer to tell them more about this event or at least show its repercussions. As fancy as it sounds, it’s just another way of foreshadowing.

“The morning after he killed Eugene Shapiro, Andre Deschenes woke early.” — Undertow by Elizabeth Bear

For a subtler touch, the writer might leave overt foreshadowing out but use symbolism to create an ominous mood.

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

If your opening line mentions a problem of some kind, it probably has conflict.

2. Raising Questions

Most excellent opening lines have odd or counterintuitive statements that beg for explanation.

“All children, except one, grow up.” — Peter Pan and Wendy by J.M. Barrie

This opening from Peter Pan will make readers think, “There’s a child somewhere that doesn’t grow up? In heaven’s name, who?”

“Monday morning when I answered the door there were twenty-one new real estate agents there, all in horrible polyester gold jackets.” — The Hacker and The Ants, Version 2.0 by Rudy Rucker

Why in the world would 21 real estate agents in tacky, matching jackets show up at someone’s door?

If the question-raising statement is about a conflict, that just makes it better. This line introduces an unusual problem.

“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” — Feed by M.T. Anderson

The opening line might also introduce a contradiction, making the readers scratch their heads as to how that is possible.

“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

Provocative statements arouse curiosity, and that’s what you want in your opening line. In a speculative fiction work, that provocative statement will probably come from something special in your world.

3. Setting Atmosphere

Sometimes first lines stand apart because they establish the mood with creative wordcraft and vivid imagery.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” — Neuromancer by William Gibson

Above, Gibson establishes an ominous atmosphere with tech-filled imagery, perfect for the story that’s about to unfold.*

“A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard.” — Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

In Dick’s opening line, the merry surge of electricity and the mood organ blend the mechanical and emotional, setting the scene for artificial intelligence.

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” — Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Adams takes two sentences to warm up, but this is a great example of establishing mood. He humorously depicts humans as remote and backwards rather than the center of the galaxy as we’d all like to think.

Openings like these are hard to pull off. Rather than banking on interesting atmosphere to carry your first line, I recommend finding a mood and personality for your entire work and letting those color the strong lines you already have.

4. Introducing the Main Character

An opening line doesn’t have to introduce the main character to be effective. But if it does, the story gains a head start building rapport between the reader and the hero. That will keep the reader engaged until the end.

“At the end, the bottom, the very worst of it, with the world afire and hell’s flamewinged angels calling him by name, Lee Crane blamed himself.” — Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea by Theodore Sturgeon

Along with providing a boatload of conflict, this suggests Lee is in danger from hell’s angels and that he feels responsible for all the chaos. Now we must know how Lee could have caused such a catastrophe, and since he’s facing an uphill battle, we’ll probably cheer for him, too.

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.” — Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

This provokes curiosity about the protagonist, so readers will pay attention when the hero is described and hopefully become attached to him.

“Call me Ishmael.” — Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Ishmael is a character from Genesis that is banished to wander the desert (hey look, there’s conflict). The narrator doesn’t say his name is Ishmael; he tells readers to call him Ishmael. He’s choosing to use that name instead of his own. This raises questions and implies a lot about the character and his situation.*

Opening lines are distinguished by what they imply, not by what they state outright. The less they explain, the more there is for the reader to wonder about.

“It was a pleasure to burn.” — Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

In six words, Bradbury suggests conflict via burning, makes a provocative statement that burning is pleasurable, and describes the protagonist’s outlook at the beginning of his tale.

If your opening line is this evocative, you’ve got a winner.

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  1. Kora

    How’s about these for opening lines:

    Suggesting Conflict:
    “I sat in the Waiting Room, staring at a poster proudly declaring that ‘Silence is Golden.'”

    Raising Questions:
    “Mama always told me I was her ‘little gift from heaven.’ Little did I know how true that was.”

    Introducing the main character:
    “Raven shot towards the earth like a comet, black wings aflame.”

    Setting Atmosphere:
    “There is nothing outside these walls. Nothing.”

    (Unfortunetely, only one of these has a closing line. XD I have more trouble finishing stories than starting them.)

    • Chris Winkle

      Good work. I especially like your second set “Raising Questions.”

      I think you have a good idea for your “Suggesting Conflict” one, but it takes a little too much thought to puzzle out what’s going on there, and that hides the menace. I think you could use the “Silence is Golden” in different context and it would work better.

      Your Raven line actually sets the atmosphere more effectively than it introduces the character, I think. It has nice imagery, I might try to add more curiosity or conflict to that one.

      I also really the idea of “nothing outside these walls” – but I think the wording you’ve chosen is hindering you a little. Ideally, you shouldn’t need that second “Nothing” to clarify. I would work to tighten that, maybe “Nothing exists outside these walls.” That would make a very intriguing opening sentence.

    • Circe

      I like the Setting Atmosphere sentence best. It’s a bit spooky, a bit melodramatic. And I’m assuming the protagonist from the Raising Questions sentence is a fallen angel?

  2. Kathleen

    One of my favorite opening lines is from Barbara Hambly’s, The Silicon Mage. “The worst thing about knowing that Gary Fairchild had been dead for a month, was seeing him every day at work.”

    Granted, it was book two in a series so if the reader had read book one, the obvious question in that sentence would be answered already, but there still is a lot of conflict by nature of why Dead Gary was at work every day.

    Thanks for this post. It’s helpful.

  3. Greg S

    The Neuromancer one has stayed with me since I first read that book thirty or so years ago.

    And while Lovecraft isn’t my favorite author, he did have some pretty good opening lines, such as:

    “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”
    -From The Call of Cthulhu

    “It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.”
    -From The Thing on the Doorstep.

  4. Circe

    Do you think the opening line “It was ANOTHER Californian drought” would make readers exasperated instead of curious? It’s the opening line for my fantasy novelette.

    • Bellis

      Maybe say (or hint at) what makes this drought different or special? If it is just another drought, like the ones that usually occur, then it would not be very interesting. I’m assuming there is something more going on with your drought, but maybe there’s a better way to hint at that than the all-caps “ANOTHER”? That word doesn’t really say much (California is unfortunately known for frequent droughts after all*) and emphasising it doesn’t change that.

      Is it the drought that breaks the camels back? Is it worse than the ones before? Is it fundamentally different somehow, are the effects different or more extreme? Do people react to it differently? If so, put that in the opening line.

      You say it is a fantasy novelette, so just putting in a fantasy element would change it from mundane to exciting.
      On second thought, you probably want the “another” to have two meanings: “one more” and “of a different sort”. I have to admit, I missed this at first. That is not necessarily a problem, especially if your second sentence makes that clear. But I don’t like the all-caps.

      Without knowing what your story is about, I of course can’t make suggestions (I’m also not yet a good enough writer that anyone should take advice from me), but I had a fun idea:

      “We haven’t managed water reserves particularly well, so when there was yet another drought, the trolls finally snapped.”

      “It was another Californian drought; one more, but another ballpark entirely: even the Milky Way dried up.”
      (Ok this one is not polished, but you get the idea?)

      Also please excuse my lack of knowledge on droughts ^^”

      * It would be more surprising to say: “It was yet another British drought.”

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