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Ah, as I write this post, I realize I’m starting “Beginnings” right after my post called “Finished”! Well, it’s appropriate, as one Writers Circle session ends and another starts, to have a discussion about first sentences.
Choosing the right first few words for your story can be agonizingly difficult. In journalism, opening lines are called “hooks”, literally intent on snagging the reader’s attention like a fish on a line. Coming up with the perfect starting sentence requires balancing many things – voice, point of view, scene setting, details of topic and circumstances, and much more. All this must be conveyed with just the right well chosen words, setting the stage for a reader to enter your narrative.
Here are the “100 Best First Lines from Novels” as assessed and compiled by the American Book Review. It’s a fascinating study not only of good beginnings, but of the many unique ways a story can start, from entering the inner life of the narrator to listening to a self-conscious author announce his or her book.
The brilliance of these initial lines is in their titillation, telling us just enough, even if most lines tell us almost nothing. Note the length of sentences – a few simple words played like precisely struck notes, or a paragraph-long sentence that somehow coalesces without confusing.
I challenge you to look at your opening lines and ask yourself if they pinpoint precisely the story you plan to tell. Do they take you immediately into the moment of your work, or do they meander, wondering where the story really begins? Does your narrative voice beg the reader to listen, almost breathing the personality of the character who speaks? It’s very tricky and takes a shocking amount of honing.
Don’t be satisfied simply with whatever first comes out. Sit with it for a moment and think about what the words do or don’t say. Then draft the story and return to those first lines again. Do it over and over as your story evolves. More often than not, those original, beloved first words will completely transform with the unexpected progress of your work. Sometimes you’ll eliminate them completely.
So see where these lines take you, and try some yourself. Here’s to new beginnings.