ost techniques for opening a story, also known as narrative hooks, focus on the first line of the story. The idea behind most narrative hooks is that the first line should be so interesting that it makes your reader want to read the second sentence, which then makes them want to read the next, until they have read the entire first page. My technique focuses on the overall effect of the first few lines of your story, in particular the first two lines, with the spotlight being on the second sentence rather than the first.
This is a technique I’m calling The One-Two Punch Story OpeningTM. A one-two punch is a boxing term that refers to two quick blows in rapid succession, typically a left-hand jab immediately followed by a right cross. I compare this type of story opening to a one-two punch in that it sets the reader up for one situation, and then it switches gears in the next sentence, like a boxer who lands a hit on his opponent and then switches the direction of his next swing. It’s about creating a scene or image in one sentence and then subverting expectations in the next sentence to surprise the reader with a twist.
Examples of The One-Two Punch Story Opening
“Pretending that I didn’t know I was about to be stood up at the altar was hard. Seeing my fiancé walk into the room after I’d spent all night burying him was harder.”
“We were all ecstatic when my grandpa’s dog came home after it had been missing for weeks. The joy soon faded when we found fingers in his stool—child fingers.”
“The radio keeps turning on by itself, even after I unplugged it. It didn’t really freak me out until I realized it was my dead friend’s voice coming through the speakers.”
Using The One-Two Punch Story Opening
A one-two punch refers to two quick blows in succession; but in general, it also means two things coming together to create one effect. According to Cambridge Dictionary, it’s usually used to refer to two unpleasant things that happen together.
You may have noticed, in two out of the three examples, the first sentence was something unpleasant, which was followed by something even worse. One way to easily create The One-Two Punch Story Opening for your story is to follow your first sentence with the phrase “and then it got worse” (or a variation, such as “and then it got even worse” or “but that wasn’t the worst part”).
You don’t have to keep that part in your final sentence, but using that phrase while writing can help you imagine what the second sentence surprise should be.
Why the Technique Works
The One-Two Punch Story Opening works like the punchline of a joke. It’s the sudden burst of the unexpected that causes the reaction in your readers. Although the feeling the reader experiences is different than that of a joke, the delivery system is the same. You have the setup in one sentence and the pay-off in the next.
The One-Two Punch Story Opening is jarring. Usually, you’re told to avoid that in your writing. Most of the time, that’s true. You don’t want to skip around in your story too much, or your readers could lose interest or get confused. But the opening of your story is the perfect time to be jarring because you have the readers’ full attention. Shocking them early on will help you make a great first impression. By beginning your story with this technique, your readers will have no idea what to expect next. That is exactly what you want.
The One-Two Punch Story Opening is not just effective because it is surprising. There are plenty of shocking openings that don’t use this particular mechanism. In addition to being surprising, The One-Two Punch Story Openings are compelling because there is an immediate payoff to the setup that occurred in the first sentence. They satisfy the part of our brain that wants instant gratification. And they also capture our attention before our ever-shortening attention spans can find something else to focus on.
Here are a few more examples of The One-Two Punch Story Opening. The first one is from my work-in-progress, a bizarro novel called, The Hand that Feeds You.
“At 10:13 PM, Anna Rollins gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Fifteen minutes later, she gave birth to a hand.”
This is from The Lovely Bones: “My name was Salmon, like the fish, first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”
The One-Two Punch Story Opening in a Single Sentence
If you want to achieve the effect of The One-Two Punch Story Opening in a single sentence, you'll most likely want to use a coordinating conjunction to create a compound sentence. Words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so will help you combine the two separate ideas into one sentence in a way that gives both the setup and payoff of the sentence equal weight.
For instance, George Orwell’s novel 1984 begins with the single line, “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
The first half of that sentence is creating a typical setting, giving us the month, time of day, and weather. There’s nothing out of the ordinary there. It’s the second half of the sentence, “the clocks were striking thirteen,” that drops the bombshell that this is not an ordinary world, and we are not entering an ordinary story.
Another example is from Kevin Sweeney’s novel Genocide on the Infinite Express:
“Corpses everywhere, not all of them human, but all of them me.”
There are other ways to create a one-two punch opening in a single sentence, often using words like especially or mostly to set up the payoff.
For example, “Amy wasn’t too adamant to go to her uncle’s will reading, especially since he was still alive.”
To reuse one of the examples I mentioned earlier, you could say, “Pretending that I didn’t know I was about to be stood up at the altar was hard, especially since I’d spent all night burying my fiancÚ.”
Final Thoughts about The One-Two Punch Story Opening
Typically, the most effective way to create The One-Two Punch Story Opening is to begin with an ordinary first line to heighten the shock of the second line. This probably goes against everything you’ve been taught about narrative hooks and how the first line needs to blow readers away. Keep in mind the overall effect you are going for with The One-Two Punch Story Opening. Context is everything. The best stories are more than the sum of their parts. It’s not just about the lines, but it’s also about how the lines fit into your opening to create the right effect for your story.
Madison Estes writes horror, speculative fiction and poetry. She has had short stories appear in several horror and fantasy anthologies. She is the editor of Road Kill Vol. 6: Texas Horror by Texas Writers (Death’s Head Press). In her spare time, Madison enjoys reading, drawing, sculpting, and yoga. She lives in southeast Texas. You can follow her on Twitter @madisonestes, Instagram @madisonpaigeestes and watch her You Tube channel where she posts about horror books, movies, and writing: youtube.com/c/MadisonEstes.