There's an unspoken contract at the heart of every work of literature: the writer must provide the reader with something so irresistible, the reader puts aside every other thing she or he might do and keeps reading. Nowhere is that contract weightier than in the opening line. How can you create a single sentence that makes it impossible to resist reading on?
Plant something in your opening line to cause your reader to wonder. An intriguing character is good. An intriguing relationship is even better. Refer to something that happened in the past in a way that makes the reader want to learn more about it. Or imply something that will happen in the future in a way that makes the reader want to watch happen.
"Major Pettigrew was still upset about the phone call from his brother’s wife and so he answered the doorbell without thinking." Helen Simonson begins Major Pettigrew's Last Stand with a deceptively straightforward-seeming description. In a single sentence, we know something big—implied in the reference to the upsetting phone call—has already happened. And we sense another big thing is about to happen, because answering the doorbell without thinking is bound to lead to some unforeseen complications. One sentence, and we’re already wondering about two different things.
"In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers." Téa Obreht opens The Tiger's Wife by setting action in the present tense (the grandfather is bald, and he takes the narrator), which imbues immediacy. But the opening clause tells us this time has already slipped away. Even as we feel a young child's present-tense anticipation about going to see something as exotic and ferocious as tigers, we have the bittersweet sense of retrospection.
A short opening can be as effective as a long one, if you construct it well. I begin my novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser with a five-word sentence, "Mama was always so busy." What reels the reader in is what isn't there. What keeps Mama so busy? And whose Mama is this—i.e., who's speaking? What does Mama's constant busyness mean for the narrator—what will it set in motion that unfolds in the pages to come? The only way to find out, is to read on.
Lois Leveen is the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser (William Morrow/HarperCollins), a novel based on the true story of a woman who became a Union spy by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. A former faculty member at UCLA and Reed College, she'll be leading a session on crafting compelling openings at the 2012 conference, and another on creating convincing dialogue.