On pick-up lines and opening sentences

Open Book Series
Image courtesy of Kristen Bradley/Flickr/Creative Commons

Opening sentences are the pick-up lines of books.

Think about it.

If the opening sentence is no good, chances are you’re not going to be picking that book up again. On the internet, attention spans are even more precious, with the average amount of time spent on news sites estimated at only 15 seconds, and the average time for online video not much better, at only 30 seconds.

With many things, particularly writing, the hardest part can be simply making a start. (Tip: if you find yourself vacuuming, you are definitely avoiding something). And thinking about how best to convince readers to stay with you when you know you’ve only got fifteen seconds can add to the difficulty of beginning.

But opening lines, like pick-up lines, are worth spending a little time thinking over, for they can make or break a conversation.

So, here, I’ve collected three of my favourite opening lines by a master of the short story – Italian author Dino Buzzati – and examined what makes them an engaging call for readers to stay.

  1. Outside the gate, a score of metres beyond the old customs house, someone is waiting for me.

Pace, tone and mystery: Here, Buzzati is pacing his opening sentence in a way that propels the reader forward towards a mystery. ‘Who is waiting for you?’ asks the reader, moving forward to find out. The tone of this entry also contributes to the mystery.

  1. Ruined and happy.

Contradiction: contradictions are inherently intriguing, and will immediately raise questions and propel your reader forward. Here, you can almost hear the reader asking ‘Who is ruined? How have they been ruined? And why on earth are they happy?!’  

  1. I’m waiting for her.

Raise a question, or cut to the chase: Here, the reader is introduced immediately to what is sure to be the central concern of the story. No time is wasted setting a scene with long descriptions, but rather, the same is achieved with the tone.

Overall, all of these openings have one thing in common – each make a consistent use of mystery. Giving readers only a piece of the puzzle will spur them forward on a treasure hunt. But be aware of not stringing readers along for too long! Nothing is more frustrating than a puzzle with no answer, so be sure to satisfy readers’ desire for information evenly throughout your story.


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