In the Beginning…

Few facets of writing are as important as an opening line. While every story needs well-drawn characters and an engaging plot, nothing will deter a reader faster than a lousy first sentence—particularly in short fiction. Thus, your job as a storyteller is to hook the audience at the beginning of your tale and give them a reason to keep reading. There are a number of ways to do this, and since imitation is one of the best ways to learn, here a few examples to consider.

Short and Simple

Some writers begin their narratives with simple, declarative sentences. For example, Tolkien plunges us into the world of the Shire and Middle Earth with the line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Likewise, Virginia Woolfe’s opening, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” displays both her protagonist’s commanding personality as well as the author’s own self-assured style.

Here are some other declarative openers that carry plenty of punch:

“The small boys came early to the hanging.” (Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth)

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” (Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It)

“I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. One and only one.” (Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men)

“It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.” (Joseph Heller’s Catch 22)

Conjuring Up Questions

A short declaration sometimes has the effect of plunging the reader right into the center of the action, such as in Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat: “None of them knew the color of the sky.” Or consider Ernest Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber: “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.” Both of these openings encourage readers to ask questions, and it is these sorts of questions that will coax the audience into joining the author on the narrative journey.

Here’s another opening line that begs all sorts of questions: “When my nose finally stops bleeding and I’ve disposed of the bloody paper towels, Teddy Barnes insists on driving me home in his ancient Honda Civic, a car that refuses to die and that Teddy, cheap as he is, refuses to trade in” (from Richard Russo’s Straight Man). What caused the narrator’s bloody nose, and why is Teddy such a cheapskate? It’s another twenty pages before these questions are answered, but by then, Russo has the audience firmly hooked.

Grand Vistas

Sometimes an author will begin a story with a sweeping comment about the human condition, such as in Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.”

Other writers, such as John Irving, will essentially sum up their entire story in an opening line: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany” (from Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany). It took Irving several drafts to get this one right, but the statement conjures up a host of questions that are not answered until the book’s final pages.

Who’s Talking?

Consider using your opening passage to establish your speaker’s voice, such as these two narrative gems:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye)

Listening to these two openers conjures up vivid notions about who is telling the stories—which is precisely what a good narrative should do.

What Not to Do

Here’s a real yawner of an opening line from William Paul Young’s bestselling novel The Shack:

“March unleashed a torrent of rainfall after an abnormally dry winter. A cold front out of Canada then descended and was held in place by a swirling wind that roared down the Gorge from eastern Oregon.”

Are you kidding me? A weather report? Wake me when it’s over. (Believe it or not, this book has sold over three million copies. But then literary quality is not always a prerequisite for commercial success. Look at Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer.) Now there’s nothing wrong with beginning a story in the throes of a howling snowstorm, but writing something that sounds like a script from the Weather Channel’s teleprompter is probably not the best way to go.

The bottom line is this: If you want people to read your story, it’s important to capture the audience’s attention from the opening line. Put the reader in the middle of the action, or provide them some questions or ideas to ponder. Quality screenwriters know this rule well, and if you’re writing a short story or a novel, the same principle applies.

So, I’ve shown you a few of my favorite opening passages. What are some of yours?

Open Up.

The irony here is I have no good opening for this post.  I’ve been thinking about this one for a couple of days and realized a few things.  One is that outside of screenplays, where the first ten pages are of vital importance, the writers I hang out with and I haven’t talked much about the process of crafting our openings.  Close on that was the realization that I don’t really have a full grasp of my process for openings.  So bear with me if this is less how-to and more theory but I do have some thoughts and tips.

  First of all, don’t worry about it, at least at first.  If you come up with a killer first line that’s great.  Even better if it flows seamlessly into an eyeball bursting opening.  That will probably come later though after your first draft is complete.  It’s hard enough to get started on a new piece without the added pressure of a strong opening. 

If I stare at the screen for more than a few seconds I just start with stage direction.  That’s also usually the weakest opening so you’re probably going to change it.  I went through a bunch of my old stuff (just the first few lines) and found this gem–“The black Jag slid smoothly into the parking space marked Caleb Sinclair.”  Blech.  The rest of the paragraph (keep in mind this is the first paragraph) is all Caleb getting out of his car.  It’s a short little story from one of our word exercises and it’s actually pretty decent.  But that opening would be the first to get the cleaver. 

Direction is fine if it serves as a hook.  The first line from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series–“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”  That’s better.  Still telling us something is happening but it’s not shoe leather.  In one line we have a protagonist, antagonist, and setting.  But more importantly the reader has questions.  Who is the man in black and why is he running?  Who is the gunslinger and why is he chasing?  You have to keep reading to find out.  Nobody gives a damn about why the black Jag is parking and we know who’s in there because I told you. (Seriously, that’s weak.) 

So that’s another goal.  Try to create more questions than you answer.  Think of your opening like a movie trailer.  You have to set the tone and give just enough away that they want the rest.  Give too much away and they think there’s no reason to keep reading, they have it figured out already.  If it helps think of your reader as unwilling to go on and you have to trick him.

And finally a genuine how-to tip.  Going over some old stuff showed me a bunch of weak first draft openings.  Some of the second draft ones could be a little stronger too.  But I did notice one technique crop up rather frequently that always seemed to work well.  A single line of unattributed dialog.  It doesn’t seem to matter what’s being said because you automatically wonder who said it and what the heck they’re talking about.  Pow!  Instant engagement and they’re hooked for at least the next line or two.  Make ’em count. 

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Sing to me, O muse…

Nine Muses dancing with Apollo, by Baldassare ...
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If people discover that you write fiction, one of their most common questions is, “Where do your ideas come from?” It’s a difficult question to answer. Unlike Milton’s image of Sin leaping fully formed out of Satan’s mind, my story ideas seldom reveal themselves with any sort of clarity. Instead, they are usually snippets of something—fragments of a scene or impressions of a character or a situation.

The ideas themselves could come from anywhere. Perhaps it was a face in photograph, some obscure detail from a book or a magazine, or an overheard comment from a stranger in the supermarket check-out lane that morphs into an imaginary conversation between some yet to be conceived characters. Somehow, almost magically, these slippery elements embed themselves in my subconscious and wait for the right moment to emerge. And then together, we slide down the rabbit hole to see where they will lead. Often these ideas hit dead ends, but if I’m persistent, they will occasionally grab me by the collar and plunge me into a creative space where I meet a host of characters I never knew existed.

For me, some of my best story ideas have come when I was not thinking about writing at all. Instead, I was doing something else, like taking a walk, mowing the grass, or some other mundane task. Perhaps the combination of doing something involving physical movement (while at the same time requiring very little mental concentration) allows my mind to wander into that zone where creative ideas emerge.

Whenever I write a short story, for example, I usually have a clear picture of the opening or closing scene, but I have no idea what the rest of the story will look like until I start writing it. The novel I am working on at the moment was inspired by a scene from a dream I had a couple of years ago. While those creative rushes are no doubt fun, it’s also important to remember that if there’s a story worth telling, it’s going to take some work to bring it to life. Eventually, you have to leave the mysticism behind and simply write the darned thing. Like Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

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The Great Percolator

Where do I get my ideas?  I may have to cheat a little bit here and make a distinction between getting ideas and getting the story.  The ideas are easy enough if you stay open to them.  Take a bus ride and watch everyone that gets on.  In a half hour you’ll probably see at least three people who are interesting enough (a guy with one leg, an old woman with a shaved head, a teenage girl wearing a viking helmet) to qualify as a story idea.  That’s when you play the whatif game and it should only take a couple of questions to have a basic story idea.  What now?  You could start writing in a notebook right then and there but I like to throw it in the Percolator.

 There’s a machine in my brain where I throw in any little bits and just let ’em simmer, let ’em bubble.  Keep the heat low and don’t watch the pot, just give it some nice easy stirs and see what floats to the top.  I don’t always know what’s in there, the Percolator puts in all sorts of weird stuff.  But who cares what the ingredients are if you get a yummy story out of it?  You have to be patient, especially at first.  My writing group meets every two weeks and at first I would take most of that for percolation.  But the more you use it, the more you trust it and the faster it cooks.  I’ve had some where I just fed in a word or two, perhaps a situation and had the story idea five minutes later. 

A couple key points though–don’t think and don’t talk.  You’re not thinking, you’re percolating.  The Percolator will try putting things together and sorting them out and it’ll access any memories, previously stored ideas, or any other odd bits all on its own.  If something isn’t gelling it will drop to the bottom of the pot and try a different combination.  Thinking will just open the lid and let all the story steam out.  Talking is the same.  If someone asks you how it’s going just tell ’em it’s percolating.  If they’re a writer they won’t pester you further.  If they’re not a writer and they try to pester you, tell ’em to go pound salt.  You don’t owe ’em anything.  Wankers. 

If you feel like you can’t help but look under the lid or you think nothing’s cooking in there don’t worry.  Go do something monotonous that let’s you be alone, and silent.  A walk’s good but chopping wood with an axe would be even better.  The noise and rhythm of the axe will help hypnotize you and the percolator will start up and get to bubbling.  Mowing the lawn on a rider is even better still.  The rocking motion will quiet your body, a still body will quiet your mind and the subconscious will be free to work out all the details.  Kind of like riding a train I suppose.

J. K. Rowling is richer than the Queen all because of a little orphan boy with glasses.  I doubt Ms. Rowling had any idea how popular the Harry Potter stories would be but I daresay she knew she had a good story idea on her hands.  The story about the story is that the idea came to her ‘more or less fully formed’ one day as she rode the train.  I’m paraphrasing from memory but that’s pretty close and it may have even seemed that way to her, but I don’t think that’s how it happened.  I think she had been mulling the story over for many days, more likely weeks.  Barely conscious of it, perhaps wholly unconscious of it.  I’m willing to go further and bet it was the train itself which started her mind going and became the Hogwart’s Express. 

You can picture it can’t you?  The rythmic motions of the train, maybe some rain on the windows she’s staring through, the lack of conversation.  The whole while her inner storyteller was working it out.  Where was the train going, how long was the trip, what were the passengers like.  When the Storyteller had it pretty well pieced together, out it popped where the Writer saw it fully formed.  It’s true I’m presuming much and likely projecting because that’s how I ‘get’ my ideas.  I use The Great Percolator.   The good news is the Percolator will always come up with something.  The bad news is that’s not the real work.  You still have to write it.  So as soon as the timer on the Percolator dings get to work.

Viva la Resolution

Father Time and Baby New Year from Frolic & Fu...

I’ve never liked New Year’s resolutions.  I’m not against the idea of resolutions themselves but most people that make New Year’s resolutions are just blowing smoke.  They’re counting on some mystical power of January 1 that just isn’t there folks.  They call it resolution but it’s usually self-pitying wishful thinking.  It lacks intent.

That said, I find myself at a spot where I need a little evaluation and revitalization in my writing habits.  It happens to be days away from New Year’s so I won’t be able to avoid it really being a New Year’s Resolution.  I’ll share some of my thoughts on making resolutions stick with you while simultaneously making my deadline for this blog.  I’m slick like that.

Write it down. It might seem odd to tell people who are writers to write stuff down but I’ll say it again.  Write it down.  This advice is given in all sorts of life-coach situations (fitness, therapy, business…).  It’s probably the most useful, easiest to use, and most often ignored tool around.  It feels dorky.  Hell it is dorky.  It’s also effective.  Effective out of all proportion to the effort required.  Seriously, write it down.

Be specific. ‘Write more’ is not specific.  ‘Start novel’ or ‘finish novel’ is better but you need specific goals within that category.  ‘Write everyday’ sounds specific but when?  ‘Monday thru Friday.  6pm to 7pm.  Phone off.  Door closed.  1000 word minimum.’  That’s specific.  Also be specific about what you’re working on.  If you like to revise as you go, schedule time for that.  Maybe ‘Saturday mornings.  8am.  Revise all pages from the previous week.’

Be realistic.  The goal of a serious writer is to write everyday.  That’s a good goal but if you really can’t make it be honest.  If you have to drive the kids to TaeKwonDo on Thursdays and wait around while they kick each other don’t schedule writing on that day.  If you can only get three days a week commit to those days and write on those days.  You’ll be more productive actually writing for three days than wishing you were writing for seven and only getting it done on two.  Make sense?

Build in assessment. Every month is a good time to reassess.  If whatever you tried is working keep at it.  If it’s not working, why?  Be honest, make adjustments, write them down and keep at it.

Failure is not the end. I’ve said this elsewhere but it bears repeating here.  If you skip a day, don’t waste time telling yourself how much you suck.  Definitely don’t stop.  That day is gone.  Forever.  There’s nothing you can do about it but you can write today.  So do that.

Be positive. Lose weight.  Quit smoking.  Stop cheating on my wife.  Most resolutions are to fix things people don’t like about themselves.  That’s fine but it’s counterproductive to hold on to all that negative energy.  Acknowledge the bad and then move on with the good.  Build good habits and celebrate your little victories along the way.  While you’re at it try and have some fun.

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