To begin at the beginning…


It seems to make sense doesn’t it? You begin your story at the beginning.

Well… maybe not.

You see, those first lines are extremely important. The beginning is the doorway into the world of your story. It sets a tone, introduces the setting, characters, the flavour of the story.

So, consider this metaphor: When building a house, the door is the last architectural component put in place.

So it should be with a story.

Your first line should entice. The first 3 paragraphs are like the foyer. It’s like you’re the cinematographer of a film and you need to guide the audience’s emotional attention. Do you need a panorama, an intimate moment, or something shocking?

In speaking about a novel’s introduction, Stephen King said, “An opening line should… say: Listen. Come in here.”

door3Reading is an experience. The purpose of the first few sentences is to immerse readers in that experience. Hurl them into the cold depths of the lake. Open a door to reveal a wondrous fairyland. Whisper in their ear, so intimate and seductive. Writing is a seduction.

To do this well, ask yourself: What is the essence of the lake or land of my story? Then, distill your opening into an elegant whiskey or wine, immersive and striking, irresistible.

What you’re trying to avoid

A typical problem of many first novels, is an opening made of writing warm ups. That is, back story, setting description, or banal day-to-day details with the main character doing things like brushing their teeth. It’s like opening the door to your guests wearing sweat pants.

Back story, description or details about things such as cooking dinner are not the makings of story; they are the writer’s homework. There things you as writer need to know — the intimate details of your character’s lives — but the reader doesn’t.

Details go in only when the reader needs to know because you need to convince them of something. And even then, description, back story, details need to go into the story in a way that adds meaning or depth, interest or intrigue. Anything that feels like a checklist should be remain in government websites or your notes.

A common substantive edit suggested to writers is to cut the first 5-20 pages of a book so it starts where the true action starts. Great writers do this before they give the book to someone to read.

door1Process suggestions

Get an idea for the opening? Throw it in your first chapter document in rough form. Don’t word-smith it, copy edit or try to create poetry. Get another idea? Add it in, too! The more the merrier.

Follow Anne Lammott‘s advice and write a “sh*tty first draft.” Heck, keep your first chapter crappy well into your second or third draft.

As you develop your story, things will shift and hopefully, the layers of relationships, the uniqueness of the characters, will deepen. So when it comes time to hang the door, you can better understand what kind of doorway your story needs.

To make sure you’ve got the goods, write a few versions and put them in a drawer for a month or two so you forget them. Work on the rest of your book during that time. Then look at them again with fresh eyes.

Finding your opening

Here are a few approaches. If you can think of others, leave a comment below.

  • Start with action > A bomb blows up. Someone walks through the door. A car accident. A man becomes suddenly blind while walking down the street, as if by magic.
  • Ominous > A statement or choice of words that hints that something bad’s going to happen.
  • Apt image or metaphor > What is the primary struggle of the story? Can you find an image or metaphor that begins that exploration? For example, if the central struggle is about breaking free,  show your character trapped in a supermarket line-up.  Or if your story is a voyage and return, force the main character through some kind of passage that allows them to enter that world.
  • Toy with expectations > Have your murdering dictator show kindness to a puppy. Show your innocent heroine lying to cover up a secret she doesn’t tell us.
  • Be provocative > What provocative idea does the situation in your story explore? Begin with a question or statement that provokes interest.

A few novel novel opening lines…

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.” ― Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.” ― Dennis Lehane, Until Gwen

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” ― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“The day the freight train hit my father, I was eight years old and in grave contemplation of our maple tree’s crown, shielding my eyes from the sunlight speared there.” ― Kirby Gann, The Barbarian Parade

“Her father would say years later that she had dreamed that part of it, that she had never gone out through the kitchen window at two or three in the morning to visit the birds.” ― Edward P. Jones, The Girl Who Raised Pigeons

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” ― William Gibson, Neuromancer

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” ― George Orwell, 1984