Crafting a Strong Opening

In Hollywood, they call it “the hook.” It’s a significant event that happens within the first ten minutes of a screenplay, and it’s what makes you want to keep watching. Without it, we don’t know what’s at stake for the characters or how their lives are about to change.

The same can be said of short stories - especially for a publication like ours that is primarily online. That temptation to click away or back or check our iPhone or email is a potential distraction that can’t be ignored. So when we look at stories we want to publish, we often consider the strength of the opening.

But we’re not Hollywood producers or executives. We don’t want a big action sequence with guns blazing and cars exploding as an opening; in fact that would probably hurt your chances of getting published. As lit lovers, we have a different definition of “the hook.”

The hook, in our lit terms, is one of two things:

1) A unique voice telling the story. Voice is defined by Jerome Stern in “Making Shapely Fiction” (highly recommended for novice writers) as “the writer’s style as it is expressed in the characters’ speech and thought.” Voice is crucial for making your story stand out from the hundreds of others submitted.

2) Knowing what’s at stake for the character(s). A sense of “moral jeopardy.” Why is this day different than any the characters have had so far?

If you have one or both of these strengths in the opening, you’re off to a great start. If neither of these are present, you don’t have much time left to convince us (or our readers) to continue reading. That Facebook notification that just popped up might be more interesting…

Another element of a strong opening is the first line. A good first sentence should have an important character, object, and emotion, all three of which must be continually weaved throughout the story. Short stories should be compact, tight, and each sentence should build on the one before it. Don’t tell us something we don’t need to know. (Save it for a novel!)

Let’s take a look at some past published stories of Carve for examples of a great opening with a hook.

When My Body Smashed into the Sidewalk” by Yuvi Zalkow (Fall 2007)

My last thought was this: I should have bought my mother a birthday present. Her birthday was the day before my jump and I didn’t even call her. I had seen the blackest blue necklace at the jewelry store storefront on the way to work but I didn’t have a chance to get it for her. I should have thought ahead.

In this opening, we get an immediate sense of what’s at stake: not only is the narrator dead (and telling this story from the afterlife), but the narrator’s relationship with her mother is in a precarious place, possibly ruined forever. It’s clear this day is different from any other so far because of the narrator’s death - possibly by suicide, though we don’t know for sure yet. (A little mystery is good, keeps us reading, but it’s a fine line between mystery and lack of clarity.)

This example also serves to illustrate the components of a good first sentence. There’s two important characters introduced, an object (the birthday present), and an emotion (regret). The author continues to weave these three elements throughout the story, creating a tight narrative that despite its paranormal nature, feels completely real and plausible.

Here’s one more example of both a great opening line and a solid hook:

Whiskey & Ribbons” by Leesa Cross-Smith (Fall 2011, Editor’s Choice: Kristin, in 2011 Raymond Carver Contest)

I cut my hair when my husband, Eamon, died. Dalton did, too. Everyone says you’re not supposed to cut your hair when you’re pregnant, but I don’t think that applies if you’re a pregnant widow. I don’t think that applies if the father of the child was a cop and was gunned down by some motherfucking sixteen-year-old kid who skipped school.

In this opening sentence we get our trifecta: characters (narrator/Eamon), object (hair), and emotion (grief). These three elements stay in play throughout the story, even taking on different forms (such as an intimate moment with armpit hair).

The voice in the opening is also strong - and not because of the use of foul language. Rather, it’s the narrator repeating the phrase “I don’t think that applies” and also using the terms “gunned down” and “kid who skipped school.” This tells us the narrator is still very close to the tragedy. She isn’t speaking of it in a detached, factual sense. She’s angry, confused, and still grieving.

So a strong opening consists of a hook by unique voice or moral jeopardy and a solid first line that clearly establishes important elements of the story. If you’re struggling to make a better opening, try to make it simpler. Don’t clog it up with unimportant details or observations that are of no consequence. Get to the meat and let us know what’s at stake.

I hope you find these tips helpful, and feel free to comment, ask questions, and let us know what other “Tips From the Editor” you’d like to see.