20: Once Upon a Time: Your Opening Sentence

"Some writers enjoy writing, I am told. Not me. I enjoy having written.” ― George R.R. Martin

“Some writers enjoy writing, I am told. Not me. I enjoy having written.” ― George R.R. Martin

Your opening sentence.

That pesky hook.

So now that we’ve covered character development, giving of details vs. spamming your audience, writer’s block…how to get started? How to write that first line?

Perhaps you’ve read somewhere that your opening line is the biggest hook you need to create to pull in your readers. Stephen King has mentioned this a time or two. I agree this is important. And it’s one many authors overlook.

I also agree that the first sentence of a story is your biggest marketing bit, story-wise, that you personally create. If the first sentence and following paragraph doesn’t pull me into a story, I know the book as a whole won’t interest me. I don’t buy it. A snap judgment? Maybe. But even as a child I chose books this way.

However, this whole opening line bit can be where an author creates their first mound of writer’s block (but, remember: Writer’s block doesn’t exist!) for two reasons:

1) They think they must have a perfect first line before they can start. This then leads them to:
2) Looking too far down the road with thinking like, How can I possibly finish when I haven’t even started and I haven’t even started so how can I possibly finish when I can’t start! I don’t have that opening line yet and how can I start if I don’t have the opening line and if I don’t start I can’t finish and—

And around and around you push yourself in a vicious circle of self-perpetuated writer’s block.

Any time you get so super-fixated on beginning your goal like this means you’re not focused on starting. You’re focused on can’t start and can’t finish.

And there it is again.

The whole creating what you don’t want because you’re focused on what you don’t want.

This is something I frequently needed to point out to my life coaching clients. By focusing on the lack of conclusion and lack having finished/completed the goal, it becomes utterly impossible to focus on beginning.

Of course it’s not finished. Either nothing/not much has been done yet, or there’s still steps to take. It’s like the woman who lamented she’d “only” lost 15 pounds out of the 60 she wanted to lose.

When you do this, your goal, whatever it is, becomes so massive it feels oppressively impossible.

During a writer’s group, one author, almost in tearful despair, said, “I want so badly to get this done, but I don’t know how. I know the beginning. I even know the climax and the end. But I have no idea how to pull it all together! I can’t get this finished if I can’t even come up with a good opening line!”

“Ever hear of the phrase cart before the horse?” I asked.

“Well, yes,” he said. “But what does that have to do with anything?”

“How can you come up with a great opening line if you don’t have anything to put down? If you don’t write anything to help you discover, down the road, what that opening line is?”

“But they say you should have a great opening line!”

“But nowhere do ‘they’ say you need it first thing. You’re putting the cart before the horse. You have your first few chapters down, so just keep going chapter by chapter. The opening chapter you have now might not even stay the opening chapter.”

“That’s…true,” he said.

All you need, for quite some time, really, even up to the final draft, is an opening sentence. Not anything terrific, however.

You know your main character’s name and gender. You have at least some idea of their story. So start with something like, Carmen picked up an apple from the bowl on her kitchen table and dropped it into her purse.

There.

You’ve started. Boring and bland, maybe, but now you have something down. You can change something. You can’t change a big, blank page of nothing.

Some opening lines will come to you immediately. Others will elude you up until the last possible moment.

But if you believe you must start in a whiz-bang way right now, you’ll to freeze up. Whip yourself into a frenzy of self-created writer’s block (which doesn’t exist unless you tell yourself it does.)

I also agree with King that the opening line introduces you to the voice of the story. How it will unfold, even. (But how can you know what the voice of your story is until you get a draft or two—or three or four—in?) This isn’t a chicken or the egg kind of situation; you don’t personally need a great opening line that hatches a great story.

Nor does a great story necessarily hatch a great opening line. You might have to work on it, a Stephen King sometimes does.

One day, I woke up with the phrase sooty clouds dripped against the pewter sky bouncing around in my head. At first, I thought it might be the opening to a poem. A few weeks later, it became the opening line to Backbeat:

Sooty clouds dripped against the pewter sky, the aftermath of a storm that dropped onto Portland in a great rush of rain and hail—a typical turn of weather in an Oregon summer.

Coming Home was quite different.

Here is the very first line from my very first draft:

I grew up not far from where I always believed Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz books lived.

Boring, n’est-ce pas?

By the time I published Coming Home, not a single sentence remained the same. Well, except for the last one. That one I never changed.

Backbeat was much the same way. Maybe parts stayed unaffected (such as sooty clouds dripped against…; the first few drafts followed with …a pewter sky. Later, I changed it to the pewter sky.)

Here is the opening for draft #2:

I was born in a tornado. I suppose technically it was during one, but the fact my mother was only buffered from it by a few feet of air. No, my mother wasn’t out in the midst of it, not directly, but she nearly was.

Better. Rather exciting, a birth taking place in (well, during) a tornado!

Not until draft #5 did it change to:

May 21, 1955
Dear Bugaboo (the girl who was born in a tornado!),

Today you turn seven. Seven! I know your mother would be very proud of you, tickled all to pink about what a young lady you’ve become, even when you’re covered head to toe in mud and have a frog or two hiding in your pockets. I know you’ve heard this story a thousand times or more, but I thought maybe I ought to write it down for you so you can always have it to read if I can’t tell it to you.

Quite different.

Draft #1: Created June 28, 2013 at 9:32 PM

Draft #2: Created August 15, 2013 at 6:13 AM (In many ways, this is Draft #1, redux.)

Draft #5: May 26, 2014 at 9:31 AM

It took eleven months, almost exactly, to get that first line down to something that made me happy.

I can’t say exactly at what point during draft #5 I made the change (sometime during its period of working on it), but there you have it. Eleven months.

The opening changed from a (bland) monologue to a letter from Lana’s father on her birthday, which sets up the entire book in a much better way than my initial attempt. Originally, Lana narrated to her audience the exact same information that is now contained in the letter. The change came from feedback I received from a writer’s group. Having Lana relate the information was too telling. Not showing.

Info dump, was the actual phrase someone used.

After a few days of mulling over how to keep the same information (which I felt was quite important) but not have it come across as an “info dump”, I thought of a letter my maternal great-grandmother wrote to me the day I was born. By this point of drafts in Coming Home, I also had a much better understanding of Lana’s relationship with her father.

A-ha! A letter!

I worked on it for a few days, and read it out loud at the following writer’s group meeting. The consensus?

That the chapter was now a story, rather than an “info dump”, and was now something with a much more interesting opening line. Several people commented they now wanted to know more, were compelled to keep reading; the prior version didn’t create that interest. (The opening chapter, in the letter format, is one of the chapters I provide for people to read.)

So, as you can see, your opening line can take some time to develop. And may not do so without feedback.

While the opening line is important, I would, however, encourage you to do two things as you work on your early drafts:

1) Not worry about the opening chapter (just get something, anything down).
2) Not worry about the opening line of the opening chapter (just get something, anything down).

Yes, King has stated he’s spent years and months crafting the best opening line he can, this is after he’s been through at least a few drafts. Maybe even sitting on the last one. Nowhere does he say that you must come up with the most damnably awesome first line right off the bat.

So just start.

That’s the first thing I recommend.

Next post:  Building a Home for Your Plot: Story Structure

EXERCISES

1) Preferably, go to a “brick and mortar” bookstore for these exercises (or use an online bookstore, if you like), either one that has new and used or new. Browse through the showcased books and find three books that have really compelling first sentences. Jot them down in a notebook, then make further notes about why they pull you in. Is it the voice? The drop into action?

2) Next, find three books with really bland opening lines. Jot them down and also note why they’re bland to you. How would you change them so they were more interesting?

3) In both cases, note what the opening line (and the following opening paragraph) tells you about the story and the narrator. Compare the compelling lines to the not-so-compelling ones. In either case, does the opening line/paragraph create the same kind of interest as the summary on the back of the book or on the flaps?


Questions? Comments? What do you feel makes a compelling opening sentence of a story? Leave a comment below, or email me using the “Contact” link, or at heather (at) heathercurryselfbooks (dot) com. You can also follow me on my Facebook page and on Twitter (@HCSBooks). I’m also on Instagram (heathercurryself). Also, do leave me feedback about this post!

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19: Pacing Yourself: Creating a Sense of Action in Words
21: Structural Integrity: Acting on the Plot

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