Flash Fiction Contest Tips: Opening Sentences

Sunday, April 11, 2021
Hello WOW Readers! I have been one of the first-tier contest judges for WOW’s quarterly flash fiction contest for over a decade, and it has been a huge pleasure to read your stories. I am writing this blog series on Flash Fiction Contest Tips to help you strengthen your flash writing and maybe even place in one of our contests! Tips are based on our scoring criteria and craft trends I’ve seen throughout the decade. 

We all know the first sentence of your story is crucial. It sets the mood and tone, often introduces the protagonist and/or setting, and might be the reader's first glimpse into the story's problem or conflict. It should at least pique the reader's interest, if not fully grab their attention. A well-written opening sentence or two hooks a reader and gives them motivation to continue reading. 

A poorly written opening can alienate readers and make them lose interest before they've started. Maybe the rest of your story is the best piece of writing ever created, but if you don't hook your readers at the start, they will never know how great it is because they won't keep reading.

A story should begin with action or something that moves us towards the story’s action or conflict. This is especially true with flash fiction when you have no words to waste. Consider your favorite stories. Or go to any lit mag and read the first sentence of any story. Tell us in the comments: how does the story start? What about it grabs your attention?

Let’s look at the first lines of the top three winners of last quarter's contest. 

Opening Sentence: “The beach was the same as she remembered, starchy and fresh.” 
Explanation: By saying “the same as she remembered,” the author gives a bit of history so the reader knows she was there before. This gets the reader to start asking why was she there before and why has she returned? 

Opening Sentence: “Clutching her milagro, the tin cross her husband made before he left for El Otro Lado, Nayeli whispers the same prayer over and over.” 
Explanation: The way she clutches this object builds tension by showing readers she’s anxious or worried about something and we want to read more to find out why. 

Opening Sentence: “They had exchanged messages for years, never able to reconnect.” 
Explanation: We don’t know who “they” are yet, but this sentence shows readers a problem/conflict, so we want to keep reading to find out who they are, why they couldn’t reconnect, and what happened because they couldn’t reconnect. 

One common opening you want to avoid is the waking up scene. A character regaining conscious after some kind of accident can work well if the character wakes up into some major action (I'm thinking about the beginning of The Walking Dead TV series when Rick wakes from a coma into the zombie apocalypse). But that's much different than waking up, brushing teeth, and having a cup of coffee before getting to the day's conflict. 

Another common opening that's best avoided is description of the weather. Sure, it can set mood and tone and show the scene, but unless the story is about a severe weather emergency, it's too boring to effectively grab a reader's interest. 

There are other cliché openings, like "once upon a time," loading/unloading a moving truck, or descriptions of setting or characters without including action. A quick Google search will give you many examples. 

I once read that the first sentence of novel should be a summary of the entire novel. I'm not sure I agree with that, and, even if I did, I don't know that it would apply to significantly shorter work like flash fiction. Nonetheless, it's something I think about each time I write an opening to a story. It helps me to better focus my opening lines, even if they're not fully summarizing the whole piece. 

Tell us more about your opening lines! I'd love to hear your best or worst lines. Or do you have an opening line that needs revised? Write it in the comments so we can give you some feedback! 

Tips brought to you by Anne Greenawalt, who keeps a blog of journal entries, memoir snippets, interviews, training logs, book reviews, and profiles of writers and competitive sportswomen. She has a master's degree in Creative Writing: Prose from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England and a doctorate in Adult Education from Penn State University. She is also a competitive swimmer, a trail adventurer, a dog lover, and a mom. Tweets at @dr_greenawalt.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Anne--I'm not a flash fiction writer, but certainly, opening lines--no matter what kind of writing piece it is--matters.

These are the first lines of my book about the Tulsa Race Massacre that just debuted:

Tuesday, May 31, 1921--4:00 p.m.
Thwok! Carl’s pitch hit my glove like a bullet. That one stung like the dickens. I didn’t want to wince, but I guess my eyes gave it away. I couldn’t help it.

A little bit later in the book, I return to that moment, because it's one of the last peaceful moments before Tulsa erupts.

Thanks for the tips. I'll keep them in mind the next time I enter a CNF contest.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Hi Anne,
Like Sioux's sentence, this is for a middle grade novel, not a piece of flash. But this was not how I originally opened the story. I rewrote the opening to enter a "first sentence" challenge. My original just wasn't much of a hook.

The new opening senence of Air Stream:
With a gentle sigh, warmed air moved through the compartments and passageways for the first time in twenty-five years.

Anne Greenawalt said...

Thanks for sharing your opening lines. Even though you call it the last peaceful moment, I like how there's discomfort in it that may foreshadow the massacre to come.

Anne Greenawalt said...

Thanks for sharing your first sentence! It gives me the sense that a positive piece of history is coming back to life.

Renee Roberson said...

This a great post, Anne. Thank you for sharing all these tips.

From a YA novel I wrote several years back. The opening sentence has changed at least 15 times!

"I was seven years old when I stumbled upon my love of the night sky and constellations, the day my neighbor, Mrs. Eastley, took me with her to browse the cast-off items of the nearby yard sales in town."

Anne Greenawalt said...

That sentence packs in a lot of action...I can see the scene and characters and get a sense of the story's direction. Thanks for sharing it!

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