Thursday, June 16, 2011

It All Starts With One Word

Sometimes, ending a novel or story is the easy part, while the hard part is starting. You essentially have an opportunity to grab the reader’s attention and make her want to continue reading with the first sentence. That’s a lot of pressure.

I read all kinds of books—memoirs, thrillers, fantasy, middle grade, young adult, graphic novels, non-fiction, etc. I love almost every genre and truly believe that opening yourself to different kinds of storytelling will help you as a writer. In reading various genres, I have come to appreciate the way the writers hook you in with their opening line. The first sentence sets the mood, giving you an organizational cue as to what genre you’re reading.

A great beginning may not guarantee a bestseller, but it increases the chances of a reader purchasing your book. How do we hook our readers? We are not just writers—we are readers too! Think about the kinds of beginnings that draw you in.

Here are three ways that other books spark my interest:

Invoking Mystery

Some writers begin with a pronoun (“He heard a woman’s scream”) or placing the character in a bizarre setting (“Alice woke up in a white, windowless room”). Immediately, you have an uneasy feeling when you read both opening lines. Who is this man that heard a woman’s scream? Did anyone else hear it? Is he a killer? Has he been captured? You know nothing about this man, other than the fact that he heard something dreadful…what is it and will we learn more?

The second opening line makes you wonder who Alice is, where she is, and how she got there. Will she ever get out of this room? Who put her there and why?

Some examples of opening lines that invoked a sense of mystery for me:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“I am an invisible man.” - Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

“It was a woman’s bedroom, actually a boudoir, and no man belonged in it except by invitation.” - Kathleen Winsor, Star Money

“We have been lost to each other for so long.” – Anita Diamant, The Red Tent

Springing Into Action

An effective way to start a story is to begin in the middle of the action. That way, you cut out too much of the “introduction” and get to the good stuff. In fact, I’ve had a few editors tell me that after writing your first draft, it would spice up your story to actually cut out the first chapter and start with your second. Another way to start with action is to begin with dialogue so that your reader is thrown right into the middle of a conversation.

Here are a couple opening lines that grabbed my attention because of the beginning action or dialogue:

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice

“When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned towards her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.” Katherine Dunn, Geek Love

Looking Back

I’ve been drawn to stories that begin with a teasing hook that tell me an amazing story is about to be revealed. These are generally written as a memory, something in the past that still plagues the character enough to unfold their story.

I really like how Stephen King does this in

“The terror, which would not end for another 28 years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”