When it comes to writing, opening lines are crucial. This is especially true for modern writing, which is usually read on a computer or smartphone display. Few people will put down a novel after reading a single paragraph, but many people will close a tab or click away after reading less than that. A compelling opening can make them stick around, instead.
Like this one from The Atlantic‘s Caitlin Flanagan, for example:
One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: he would shove a bottle rocket up his ass and blast it into the sweet night air. And perhaps it was an excellent idea. What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket. What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole. —“The Dark Power of Fraternities”
The only reason you would click away from that page is to save it for later, when you have time to sit down and read all 15,000+ words. That opening does not get out all the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the article, but it graphically sets the stage for a deep dive into the world of misbehaving fraternities.
Bloggers can learn from novelists, too. The best novels use the first lines to set the stage and give the reader a preview of what lies in the pages ahead:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude; trans. Gregory Rabassa)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984
All this happened, more or less. —Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five1
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. —C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Contrast those opening lines with the wandering first paragraphs of many lawyers’ blog posts, many of which never seem to get anywhere near the point. If anything, the opening line matters more on blog posts than novels, because clicking away is trivial. There are so many other things a reader could be reading or doing instead of investing time in your post. Your opening paragraph is the first and best chance to get the reader to stick around and keep reading. Make it good.
Ken White at Popehat recently provided a great example of an opening line for a law blog post (as he often does):
Thomas G. Smith made a fundamental error: he assumed that as an American he had a right to use blunt language to criticize the police.
Legally, he was right. Practically, he was wrong. —“Watch Your Mouth, Or The Village Of Arena Police Department May Get Violent”
So did (former journalist) Bob Ambrogi:
You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. And you can teach a lawyer all about social media, but you can’t make the lawyer do anything with it. —“Another Look at ClearView Social, the Social Media Sharing App for Lawyers”
And I especially like this opening paragraph from Above the Law‘s Elie Mystal:
Adam Chodorow, a law professor at the Arizona State Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law, has written the definitive guide on zombies and taxes. His paper, published in the Iowa Law Review, concludes that Congress and the IRS have failed to anticipate zombie tax implications, and have therefore put our entire tax code at risk. —“Do Zombies Have To Pay Taxes?”
As a general rule, the first paragraph should get right to the point and briefly give the reader the who, what, when, where, and how of its subject matter. If you have a good reason to hold the essence of the story back until the end, you still must set the stage up front, and you must do it in a way that piques the reader’s curiosity enough to stick around and keep reading.
Additionally, if you wander into your subject instead of getting right to the point, you may forget to have one. It is always unsatisfying to finish a blog post only to wonder what the point was. If you decide to start with a long anecdote, at least remember remember to give the reader a preview of your point before you get too far afield.
The opening paragraph is, after all, the only thing most readers will see before they decide to stay or go. If it is boring, very few will stick around to find out of you had anything worthwhile to say lower down.
Originally published 2014-07-25. Last updated 2015-11-06.
Featured image: “Crumpled paper and businessman tearing up another paper ball for the pile” from Shutterstock.
This isn’t really the opening line, though. The opening line is really the first sentence of Chapter 2: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” ↩