One of the most important parts of a story is the beginning. For so many reasons.
- slush readers who are deciding whether or not to buy your story/novel/poem might only read the first sentence. Or the first paragraph. Or the first page.
- readers who are shopping for their next read might only read the first sentence. Or the first paragraph. Or the first page.
- critics might only read...are you starting to see a pattern here?
To be effective, your beginning must:
- capture the reader's interest
- say what the story is about
- establish the story's voice
Allow me to explain these points in elaborate detail, and with examples.
Note: Most of the excerpts are from my word-a-day blog. I cannot emphasise how important it is for a writer to practice writing openings. To encourage my own practice, I began a blog whose sole purpose was to practice openings. I choose a word (or someone gives me a word), and then the word MUST appear in the first sentence. I try to write between 100 and 300 words, and it has to be off-the-cuff immediate (no time for thinking or enlisting my internal editor). Whenever I aim for a Club 100 (as outlined in my post on Establishing the Habit) victory, I use the word-a-day exercise to make sure I've written 100 words on days when I don't have time to work on my current novel-or-short-story-in-progress.
Capturing the Reader's Interest: The Hook
The first sentence must have a "hook" that reels the reader in, like a fish on a line. How might you hook this elusive reader? A vivid description of a unique world/situation can spice up a reader's curiosity (a common technique in speculative fiction). Irony can grab a reader. A dichotomy can tweak interest. Suspense can set a reader's heartbeat racing. A particularly juicy bit of dialogue can do the trick (though I have heard in many cases, that stories opening with dialogue don't sell well). If you can manage a combination of these elements, (or another fabulous technique) then you'll hook the reader right from the get go.
Hook: Vivid Description
A particularly descriptive passage will instantly transport you to another world, full of strange and unexpected marvels. In the interest of a little shameless self-promotion, I will use a two sentence example from my story, "Synch Me, Kiss Me, Drop" which just happens to be live in the May issue over at Clarkesworld Magazine:
When my nose stopped aching, I smiled at Rain. She had snorted a song ten minutes before me, and I couldn't quite figure why she waited here in the dark confines of the sample booth.
As a reader, you're wondering, first, why is the narrator's nose aching? Who is Rain? How does anyone snort a song? What is a sample booth? And what sort of dark-and-confined space are these two people in? Where and when is the story taking place? With the simple phrase "snort a song" I have managed to create a world where people can somehow inhale songs through their noses, which (hopefully) makes the reader want to keep on reading.
Nothing peaks my curiosity more than irony. Situations dripping with irony can make you laugh, cry, or simply stand, staring in dumbfounded, open-mouthed shock. An example of an ironic opening sentence from my word-a-day blog:
When the yeti stole my tuna sandwich, I knew it was going to be a long day.
As a reader, you're wondering, how in the heck can a yeti steal a sandwich? In what sort of world do yeti's and tuna sandwiches exist together? What else could possibly happen after that?
A dichotomy involves two events that can't possibly exist simultaneously. When the two events occur, despite their improbability, the reader will want to read more to find out how exactly this unlikely situation came about. An example of a dichotomy in an opening sentence from my word-a-day blog:
Bob thought one of the most terrifying creatures in the world was the munchkin.
As a reader, you're wondering, how on earth Bob could find a munchkin terrifying? For crying out loud, you could kick one like a puppy if it got in your way, couldn't you? (Okay, I wouldn't actually kick a puppy or a munchkin, I'm trying to make a point here.)
Watch any action/suspense movie, and you'll know what it feels like to be worried about a character. Typical ways to build suspense are: life-threatening situations (gun to the head, teetering on a precipice, ticking clock, terminal illness, etc.), car chases, discovering dead bodies, mysterious phone calls, etc. An example of a suspenseful opening sentence from my word-a-day blog:
Roger had a maximum of twelve days to live.
As a reader, you're wondering, why twelve days? Who is Roger? Is he captured by pirates? On death row? Is the entire world under threat of an impending doom?
Since I subscribe to the "dialogue doesn't often work as an opening" philosophy, I don't have many examples of this type of opening. One of the advantages of using dialogue is it allows you to establish the voice of your character instantly. (Of course, that means you need to enrich the sentence with a good voice-soaking or the hook will fall flat.) In movie lingo, starting with dialogue means your main character speaks to the audience instantly (showing the "who" of the movie), rather than the wide, sweeping shot-from-a-helicopter (showing the "where" of the movie). An example of two sentences utilizing dialogue for the opening from my story, "Everyone Needs a Couch" which was originally published in Oceans of the Mind, and is included in my collection, "Elements" due to be published in the spring of 2014:
"Crap. Double crap."
As a reader, you're wondering, who is speaking, and why they're in such a horrible mood that they feel the need for a double expletive right at the start? In this story, "crap" becomes a bit of a running, gag, so I felt it worked best at the start.
Saying What the Story Is About
Often, the first sentence of a story or novel will give the reader a good idea of the upcoming plot and/or theme of the work. Including this aspect in an opening sentence doesn't always work, especially if you want to include a few twists that keep the reader wondering what might happen next. But when you can work the story's concept into the first sentence, you should do so.
Going back to The "yeti" example from my word-a-day blog:
When the yeti stole my tuna sandwich, I knew it was going to be a long day.
The sentence tells the reader that the story will be about how the narrator had a long day, starting with the theft of his sandwich by a yeti. The sentence's playfulness gives the reader the hint that the story will likely be a comedy in which a bunch of unlikely-but-frustrating things happen to the protagonist.
Establishing the Story's Voice
One of these days, I will do an extended post on "voice", but for now, a quick definition: The tone or feel of a story, portrayed via word choice. Right from the first sentence, the reader should get a sense of how the story will feel as the plot unfolds. Voice is like the "flavour card" in front of the ice cream selections at Baskin Robbins, a few words that describe to you how the ice cream will taste. The next few sentences are like the ice cream sample--an itty, bitty scoop that tells you exactly how much you will enjoy the cone if you choose that flavour.
One of my trademark-suzanne-church voice-flavours involves my use of either made-up words or the-long-hyphenation-of-weirdness word structure. An example of a voice-intensive first sentence from my word-a-day blog:
I had the post-awaffleyptic blues, which is the state of mind one finds oneself in, after consuming too many waffles during Sunday Brunch.
The sentence tells the reader that the narrator likes to come up with interesting ways to describe their quirky personality, while also outlining their love of the waffle and of over-eating on a Sunday morning. Like the yeti example, the sentence's playfulness gives the reader the hint that the story will likely be a comedy, that might include a bevy of food indulgences.
In summary, beginnings are crucial. You need to rock them, big time! If you head over to my word-a-day blog, then you will see that all of the posts are simply beginnings of stories. They aren't meant to be complete stories at all (besides, I wouldn't be able to sell the stories for "First English Language Rights" if I posted them in their entirety on that blog). My goal is simply to practice beginnings.
Didn't your mother (or your piano teacher) ever tell you that practice makes perfect?
Do it now
- Write five openings to five different stories. For each one, use a word prompt, and make sure the word appears in the first sentence.
- Post your yummy word in the comments section for me to use in my next word-a-day blog post