Where I do I start, I ask you, where do I start???
If you're like me, you've jumped around from starting position to starting position, pulling your hair out as you go. If you're not like me, well, lucky you.
Beginnings are so difficult for me, I almost feel like apologizing that I'm trying to instruct on how to write them at all. The most I can hope for is that you will learn from my mistakes.
But you have to start somewhere. So pick a spot and start. It's only by trying it on for size that you'll be able to tell if it fits. And I can tell you this: you're probably going to re-write your beginning many times, so don't get too hung up on it at first. Just write it and move on.
But, for the purpose of the following instruction, let's assume that you are at revision stage and want to nail that beginning sequence.
Let's start with the first sentence.
What does a great first sentence look like? Let's look at the examples from Finding the great idea.
GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Pauline Hawkins: There is a pile of clothing on the tracks.
MARTIAN by Andy Weir: I’m pretty much f*cked.
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr: At dusk they poured from the sky.
ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes: When he emerges from the bathroom she is awake, propped up against the pillows and flicking through travel brochures that are beside his bed.
GINGERBREAD MAN by Lee Strauss: Clay from her sculpting class remained stubbornly under her nails.
Let’s look at these famous opening lines.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
L. P. Hartley: The Go-Between
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
Christopher Isherwood: Goodbye To Berlin
“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of a fleshy balloon of a head.”
John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces
“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.”
Louise Erdrich: Tracks
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God
And possibly the all time best first sentence ever—
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Jane Austin: Pride and Prejudice
What do you think of those first sentences? Take a look at your own first sentence. If that was all you had to go on, not the strength of the next sentence or paragraph, just the sentence itself, how would it strike you? Is it a strong sentence? Does it make you want to find out what comes next?
And let me share one more. This is from my son, many years ago when he was six:
“In the beginning it was very exciting and in the end it was even worse.”
(Pretty much wraps up the writing life, doesn't it? :D)
Why is this important? Because opening lines hook us into reading the second line. And hopefully more. I know when I'm browsing for a book, this is what I do—I read the first sentence. And then the first paragraph. I may read the whole first page, but not always.
How many pages do you give a book before you put it down?
Don't worry too much about your opening line or even your first page when you start a brand new story. Very rarely will you get it right the first time, or even the fifth. Your first page is something you will focus on when it's time to do revisions. For now just write, “I'm writing a story about …and it's not going to be very good at the beginning and that's okay….” And keep going.
Next week we'll look at the Inciting Incident.
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