The End of the Affair (1951)
In last month’s post, I explored the essentials of a satisfying story ending—“surprising yet inevitable”. The opening of a story, however, is not inevitable, though it can be surprising.
Just like on a new date or job interview, the writer has one chance to make a good first impression. Whether it’s an essay, short story, memoir, or novel—the opening sentence, paragraph, and page is the first impression.
A strong beginning can seduce the reader. A long-winded or boring opening can have the opposite effect. The reader (or editor/agent) loses interest. There will be no second date.
Let’s look at ways to help you get your story off to the best start.
Consider this example.
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”
This is the opening lines of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You (2014)
This simple opening sparks several questions. Who is Lydia? How did she die? Who are they and why don’t they know? Whose point-of-view are we in? The entire novel unfolds from these two sentences.
Here’s another example from Waiting (1999) by Ha Jin that evokes surprise.
“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.”
And: ‘It was a pleasure to burn.” from Ray Bradbury’s , Fahrenheit 451
Begin as close to the inciting incident as possible.
The inciting incident is the event which turns your protagonist’s life upside down in either a good or bad way. The inciting incident launches your character into the main conflict of the story. It’s the engine of your story that sets events in motion building to the climax.
Let’s say your story is about a woman who wins the lottery but doesn’t want to tell her husband about this sudden windfall.
The inciting incident would be when the woman realizes she has the winning ticket. Instead of starting the story with her marital history, or her love of gambling, you might start at the moment when she realizes she’s finally hit the jackpot. This is the tactic I took in my published short story, “The Ticket”.
There were only six numbers to check, but, just to be sure, Dolores put on her reading glasses. On the kitchen table, the newspaper was opened to the all-important page. Dolores lined up her ticket with the newspaper numbers, and compared them with such deliberation that one would have thought she was half-blind. Dolores read the numbers aloud, slowly, succinctly, like she did when calling for Bingo. “9…14…21…24…26…30.
The opening of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude makes quite a first impression. It includes hints of two inciting incidents.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
And how about this one?
“They shoot the white girl first.”
Begin with the End in Mind
Writer/entrepreneur Stephen Covey’s sage advice works well when crafting your story beginning. In his 7 Habits of Effective of Effective People, he explains:
Begin with the End in Mind means to begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen.
When writing fiction, the opening is your where you plant the seeds for your plot to grow. Knowing your destination can help you build a strong beginning.
The meaning behind Harper Lee’s understated opening in To Kill A Mockingbird is not realized until the climax of the book. The author masterfully weaves the end into the beginning.
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury…When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.
To emphasize this expert plotting device when teaching the novel, I have my students reread the opening after they finish the last chapter. They are always amazed by the cyclical structure of this classic novel.
Pick the right POV
Try to establish a distinct voice or tone, especially if you are using first-person point-of-view. Charles Dickens does it matter-of-factly in David Copperfield by confiding to the reader.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
My YA novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number, opens with a statement from the 13-year-old narrator, Talia.
Eight is my favorite number. I think it’s a beautiful number; it has two-way symmetry, it’s an even number, it’s in my birth date (September 18th) and it’s the color of a blue sky.
More examples of openings with a unique voice or tone.
“I lived with the same cat for nineteen years–by far the longest relationship of my adult life.”
“A Man and His Cat” by Tim Kreider (The New York Times 2015)
My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.“
Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones
A common mistake in first pages is including too much backstory.
Backstory is exposition as opposed to action. It’s info that the reader needs to know which happened prior to the story.
Don’t overload your reader with background details that could easily be put in later on (or not at all). Use exposition only at the point in the story when the reader absolutely needs the information. Otherwise, every line in the opening should move the plot forward.
It’s helpful to get reader/editorial feedback on your story draft. You may find out that your opening really happens on Page 3…or 10, as I did with my first novel and a recent one in progress.
Begin with the Introduction of an Interesting Character
All these examples immediately make me want to find out more about the character.
“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”
George Eliot, Middlemarch
“He had jumped a radio tower and a cliff in Norway, but never a bridge. He chose a Wednesday morning when the fog was expected to burn off early and called in sick to work.” “The Casual Car Poll” by Katherine Bell (Ploughshares 2006)
“Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes.”
George Orwell, Animal Farm
“There was once a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.” C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part inland because of the hurricane and, of course, the fact that he’d caused it. Ingrid Law, Savvy
“Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the KGB.” “This Old Man” by Roger Angell, essay from The New Yorker (2015)
“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche (1921)
While an intriguing first line may hook the reader, you still need to sustain attention. So consider this checklist for your first page.
- Introduces a compelling protagonist
- Introduces setting
- Introduces conflict
- Conveys tone or mood
- Raises questions in the reader’s mind
- Involves some action
You can learn a lot from studying the masters. Pick an anthology of stories and read just the first paragraph of each one. Which stories pull you in?
Poets & Writers Magazine just published noteworthy beginnings from 12 hot-off-the-press books.
Some of my Favorites Opening Lines
“Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty. But I was such a girl and my story is worth relating even if it did happen years ago. ” The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi.
What’s your favorite opening line?