Your Story’s Opening Line: Look for the Mystery

image by qimono
image by qimono

I stopped reading “The Chain of Awesomeness” by Jeff Somers (Writer’s Digest July/August 2016). I brought up my first chapter to see if my opening line held the mystery Somers said was more important than shock or coolness (even though they’re good too).

My opening line contained some mystery. The reader might ask why my character was doing what she did. But I continued to read my chapter. Bong! There lay the sentence that had the mystery and the coolness.

image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images
image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

And, I received a bonus. The second line of my new opening paragraph accomplished what Somers said the rest of the first paragraph should do:

“Offer a small amount of satisfaction for the reader who’s just been hooked by your awesome first line, then build on that intrigue.”




First Lines – No Mystery

  • The sun was out full force.
  • I live in California.
  • My name is Dawn.

These first lines don’t prompt the reader to ask a question.

image by Pezibear
image by Pezibear

Better Rewrites:

  • For the first time in a year, Hector saw the sun, and it was out in full force. (Why hadn’t Hector seen the sun in a year?)
  • Due to an accident, I live in California. (What accident caused the protagonist to live in California?)
  • Because of what happened at the first appearance of light on the day I was born, my name is Dawn. (What happened at the first appearance of light? Did the event have something to do with Dawn, the mother, or the town?)

First Lines With Mystery

For fun, I grabbed books from my shelves written before or at the turn of the twentieth century. It seems, even though the writing is different, the authors realized they needed to hook the reader with a mystery. You can see if they provoke a question for you.

  • “‘Mamma, what was that I heard papa saying to you this morning about his lawsuit?’” (Wide, Wide World by Elizabeth Wetherell)
    • What lawsuit was brought against the child’s father?
  • “‘Shall I ever be strong in mind or body again?’ said Walter Gregory with irritation as he left the sidewalk and crowded into a Broadway omnibus.” (Opening a Chestnut Burr by Rev. E. P. Roe)
    • What happened that Walter became weak in mind and body?
  • “It was a beautiful morning in the late July when I set forth on foot for the last time for Aros.” (The Merry Men by Robert Louis Stevenson)
    • Why was he going to Aros, and why was it the last time?)
  • “‘And so, dear old thing, I really can’t come.’” (The Marriage of Barry Wicklow by Ruby M. Ayres)
    • Why couldn’t the speaker come?
  • “In an upper chamber, through the closed blinds of which the sun is vainly striving to enter, Reginald Branscombe, fifth Earl of Sartoris, lies dead.” (Faith and Unfaith by The Duchess)
    • How did the Earl die and why is his death important?

Make sure your opening line raises a question for your readers. Click to tweet.

What’s the question you asked in the opening line of the book you’re currently reading?

Flashbacks: When They’re Not Appropriate & Tips for When They Are

image by 304cina62
image by 304cina62

While researching whether or not to use flashbacks, I received warnings from, “Don’t,” to “If you must.”

Reasons to resist flashbacks.

image by OpenClipart-Vectors
image by OpenClipart-Vectors

They often:

  • stem from the author’s wish to explain everything – info dumps of old news.
  • tell information that can be shown through current scenes and dialogue.
  • may indicate, if especially long, that the main story should’ve started earlier.
  • beg that a prologue may be a better vehicle.
  • halt the story, distract the reader, and cause a reader to lose interest.
  • remove suspense, ending the reader’s desire to know a secret.
  • are unnecessary if they don’t advance the present plot, or exist for no good reason.

Reasons to include flashbacks.



  • image by geralt
    image by geralt
    assist a dual-story – chapters alternate between a past time and a present time
  • provide crucial information when there’s no other way to include it.
  • provide backstory in a more dramatic, immediate way than a character in the present telling it.
  • may work for a prologue to reveal something essential to the story that happens several years earlier in the character’s life or in the story world.
  • provide a device to tell the story of a character with memory loss.

Tips for Writing Necessary Flashbacks



  • Don’t use flashbacks as a cop-out to avoid writing difficult present story.
  • Don’t include more than one or two flashbacks.
  • Let go of a merely interesting flashback from a character’s biography.
  • Use flashbacks only after the reader’s engaged in the story and knows the character (after several scenes).
  • Make sure a flashback advances the main story.
  • Make sure a flashback scene, like a main-story scene, has goals, motivations, and resolutions.
  • Give long flashbacks their own chapter or scene.
  • Hold back flashbacks until the reader must know the information – keep the suspense going.
  • Have flashbacks follow exciting scenes so the reader will want to return to the main story.


image by venturaartist
image by venturaartist

Tip 1: Make it clear the character is going back in time.

  • Give the character a trigger – he sees an object, smells a scent, or experiences an action.
  • For stories written in past tense, use past perfect tense a few times when entering the flashback. Once in, switch to past tense until near the end of the flashback, then switch to past perfect a few times. After leaving the flashback, return to past tense. (Limits cumbersome past perfect.)

For stories written in present tense, use the simple past in the flashback.

Tip 2: Write the flashback so it:

  • Serves a purpose – shows what shaped characters into who they are now or shows past story world.
  • Engages the reader.
  • Is limited to key moments.

Tip 3: Write ending sentences that transition the reader and character from the flashback.

  • Use another trigger – abrupt or easing.
  • Change verb tense as mentioned above.

Tip 4: After the flashback, the reader must see the character or story world in a new light as they read forward in the present.

Flashbacks: dangers, benefits & tips for writing necessary ones. Click to tweet.

For what other reasons should we use or not use flashbacks?