Since I’ve started reworking the opening of my novel this week, it’s only natural that opening lines and opening scenes are on my mind. Of all the scenes in a novel, however, the one that invariably has to do the most work is the first one. Not that you can drop the ball once you’re past the first chapter, by any means, but that first chapter had better be spectacular.
And that doesn’t mean it has to start with a fist fight, a murder, or a gunslinging showdown, although it certainly can, if that fits the book. I think what really makes or breaks a beginning isn’t as much about action as it is about intrigue and movement. If there is a sense that, “Hey, this is going somewhere! I want to slip into this story world and see what’s up!” you’re going to win readers over, whether you start with high action or dialogue or, if you do it really well, even description.
How do you give that sense of intrigue and movement from the very start? A big part of it is hints. Foreshadowing. Giving just a little background away here and there and then going back to the events at hand. Raising questions in the reader’s mind and making them wait a little (or a lot!) for the answers. And most of all, characters who clearly have goals and/or conflicts (or conflicting goals, which can be incredibly fun to write). Aimless characters are boring characters, most of the time – just because Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was hilarious, heartbreaking, and horrible, that doesn’t mean every writer should try for a similar character. Yes, there are aimless, lazy people in the world, but that doesn’t mean I want to write about them or read about them, unless you write as well as Dostoevsky…and I know I don’t. /Rant.
Anyway, on to the exercise:
Come up with 5 optional first lines for a story, each of which hints at something to come, something that’s already happened, or something that is actively happening. If possible, hint at more than one event! If your opening line is descriptive, make something about the description be a hint. Some examples:
- The year Bill Kabitzki killed himself, two things happened to me. (The opening line to the horrible book I wrote when I was in my teens.)
- Being dead has its advantages. (The new first line to The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn.)
- There was something about the barn, this morning, that disturbed him, although he couldn’t have said what it was.
- “That’s funny,” I said, glancing at his ID. “I thought you were lying.”
- She pulled the trigger…and nothing happened.
Pick one of your opening lines – the one that intrigues you the most – and write the story that comes after it.