If you’ve ever begun to read a story and found yourself enthralled before you finished the first chapter, you know the power of a great opening scene. Whether they evoke a setting, illuminate a character or set a tone, the best opening lines, paragraphs, and chapters reveal a new world to their audiences and capture their interest instantaneously. They give readers a sense of what to expect, and tantalize them with the prospect of what’s to come.
Because we love to celebrate all kinds of great beginnings, we’ve collected five story openings that had us hooked from the very first page. Check out our list below and let us know if your favorite made the cut!
The Story: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor
The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is loose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my
The Story: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.
Why We Love It:
Franz Kafka’s masterpiece, The Metamorphosis, has one of the most famous and well-beloved opening scenes in modern history. In the very first sentence, Kafka’s Gregor Samsa is challenged by a predicament so shocking and imaginative that it knocks readers off-kilter, prepping them to empathize with a protagonist whose form might otherwise disturb them. Keeping a tone that is cool, consistent, and matter-of-fact, Kafka’s writing feels at-odds with the absurdity of what he describes. His skillful juxtaposition of style and subject heightens the humor and horror of Samsa’s circumstances and compels readers to want to learn more.
The Story: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. “What the hell are you yelling about?” he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wrap around Spanish sunglasses. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s your turn to drive.” I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.
Why We Love It:
This is the introduction that Hunter S. Thompson’s rollicking, deeply-entertaining semi-autobiographical account of a drug-fueled trip to Las Vegas deserves. His surreal, high-octane storytelling style explodes off the page, inducing in his readers the same feelings of disorientation, tumult, and intensity that his characters experience while they navigate dangers both real and imagined. Thompson’s wild style crescendos at the end of his first paragraph and then is abruptly replaced by calm, complete sentences. By the end of his second paragraph, Thompsen has called into question his characters’ reliability and replaced high tension with the dark humor that rules the rest of the book.
The Story: White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 0627 hours on January 1, 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate facedown on the steering wheel, hoping that judgement would not be too heavy upon him. He lay in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed on either side like some fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service meals (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him. A little green light flashed in his eye, signaling a right turn he had resolved never to make. He was resigned to it. He was prepared for it. He had flipped a coin and stood staunchly by the results. This was a decided-upon suicide. In fact, it was a New Years Resolution.
Why We Love It:
The well-placed details in the opening paragraph of Zadie Smith’s award-winning novel, White Teeth, reveals her protagonist, gives his character depth and dimension, and imbues his dark circumstances with a wry humor that keeps the scene from being too tragic. From the exact time and place of the scene, to the fists in which Archie Jones holds his belongings, to the turn signal blinking in her character's eye, Smith uses thorough writing to orient her readers and reassure them that, even though Archie is introduced facing his end, his story has just begun.
The Story: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy. She was already in the habit of writing down important matters, and afterward, when she was mute, she also recorded trivialities, never suspecting that fifty years later I would use her notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own.
Why We Love It:
In the opening of her debut novel, The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende showcases her unique ability to relay her characters’ past, present and future lives in a single sentence, using an organic, meandering structure. She deftly introduces three characters, Barrabas, Clara and the narrator, fitting them into their generational context and hinting at the dramatic turmoil and challenges will ultimately face.
If you want to learn how to write your own compelling opening scene, check out New York Times Best-Selling Author Daniel Jose Older’s new class, Writing Stand-Out Opening Scenes, now on Skillshare!