By Tina Neyer
As fiction writers, we strive to create believable stories that have a message. Whether creating worlds based on fact or fantasy the best stories begin with strong opening paragraphs.
Let’s face it, beginnings are hard to get right. The beginning is the most read part of any work, flash fiction or novel. The reader has a choice in those first lines whether to continue reading or not.
The opening becomes a focus in my work usually by revision five or six. Identifying the problem becomes a challenge. I word-smith, share with my writing group, and then go for a walk in the woods, bake cookies, read other work, anything to distract from the task at hand.
What a masterful first paragraph may achieve:
- The Inciting Incident or at least the question of something happening as in Lee Martin’s novel, The Bright Forever, “On the night it happened—July 5—the sun didn’t set until 8:33.”
- Character to introduce a player important to the story, usually the protagonist. John Cheever’s is a master of the short story form. His work cuts to the chase, giving the reader the most information necessary to understand the story. The Children by Cheever begins with this, “Mr. Hatherly had many old-fashioned tastes. He wore high yellow boots, dined at Luchow’s in order to hear the music, and slept in a woolen nightshirt.”
- Setting in the first sentence paints a picture of where we are, sometimes indicating a sense of foreshadowing. The opening line of The Zookeeper’s Wife paints a picture of a rather sanguine place. The choice of certain items likely has ramifications later in the book. “At Dawn in an outlying district of Warsaw, sunlight swarmed around the trunks of blooming linden trees and crept up the white walls of a 1930s stucco and glass villa where the zoo director and his wife slept in a bed crafted from white birch, a pale wood used in canoes, tongue depressors, and Windsor chairs.”
Foreshadowing, Backstory, Surface-issues are other ways to open a story/novel. The choice of how to open a project is often where I get stuck because perfection not progress consumes the process. Pages into the project, the story and characters often take over and the project gets serious legs under it, so I have to trick my mind to write the best opening. This exercise ignites my creativity.
To get unstuck, next time, try this.
Use a blank piece of paper and pen. The manual writing process is helpful in order to unlock the mind and heart to get to what you really want to say. Here’s how it goes:
- Thinking about your main character, write a 5-word sentence. It must have noun-verb agreement. It must be 5 words. An example: She worked at the market.
- Write a 10-word sentence which must contain the same 5 words from the first sentence, but they don’t have to be in the same order.
- Write a 15-word sentence, and you guessed it, with those first 5 words appearing in the sentence, but it doesn’t have to be in the same order.
- Now, write a 20-word sentence using those same 5 words. Get creative, use dashes, semicolons, adjectives, adverbs, but be sure to only use 20 words.
Part Two: Now that you have an opening sentence, let’s take it a step further. Using the 25-word sentence, try these next steps to craft a first paragraph.
- Based on the 25-word sentence, write 2 sentences that have no less than 10 words and no more than 20.
- Write two more sentences of 5 to 10 words. Be sure to stay with the instructed number of words.
- Write two more sentences of 20-plus words.
- Finish your paragraph with a sentence of 5 words or less.
Counting words takes the focus away from performance. The very idea of counting words makes it necessary to focus on something other than inconsistencies in your existing story. The brain loop information in certain areas and creatives can struggle to free themselves from that loop without some device. Distracting the brain with the trick of counting functions in a way that the brain isn’t used to operating regarding creativity.
In an earlier version of a novel project, I used this exercise to bump up each chapter’s opening paragraph. Throughout the 40 chapters, what I found is not that they stayed that way, but that I came to a better understanding of how I wanted to the rhythm of the piece to flow.
I didn’t stay with the 25-word sentences in most cases. Nor did I always keep the rest of the paragraphs in quite the same order, but I did find questions about characters that needed to be answered, the best use of descriptive language, and this question became a revision in its own right: what is important about the particular chapter.
Another way to develop great opening sentences/chapters is to study the masters:
- Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations opens with this sentence: “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Phillip, my infant tongue could make both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.” Count the number of words and you’ll find that this is one example of a long opening sentence which defines right away the main character in this story.
- J.K. Rowling’s opening to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban, “Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways.”
- J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
When all else fails, take a trip to the library, study as many opening lines and paragraphs as possible. Try to identify the author’s method for an opening line that works. The first two pages of a novel must be the best they can be if you want a reader to read the entire novel.
Tina Neyer, M.Ed. writer and coach. Tina works with individuals and groups to get to the heart of a story. Her mission is to help people realize the best of any story. She lives in Greater Cincinnati with her husband and her dog. Please visit her website at: tinaLneyer.com for more information.