Feb 22, 2015 · 28 Comments
While reading the comments on yesterday's post about beginnings, I realized I'd missed out a lot of important stuff. For a start, I forgot to mention the things that don't work as well for beginnings, and not just first lines, but first scenes as well. Bear in mind, though, these are for books rather than stories (although it often works the same), and that there are exceptions to EVERY rule.
1) Avoid beginning with the character waking up, because it's been done a million times. That said, some brilliant books have begun that way, so it's another example of there being exceptions to every rule!
2) Personally, I avoid beginning with dialogue, and again, everyone is different. The reason I tend to avoid it is that it's a bit like suddenly eavesdropping in on a conversation between two people who I don't know and don't care about yet. Again, it CAN work if it's done well. These are just my reasons for avoiding it.
3) Prologues. These used to be a really popular way to start books, and some people do still use them brilliantly (I've seen John Green do this marvellously). The thing that makes them not work so well is when they are set in the past in a story that isn't the one you're telling. If the interesting stuff is happening now, that's where it's best to begin.
4) Describing the weather, scenery, or something similar to that. Tell us about the people first. "It was a dark and stormy night", is a really popular example of something not to do :)
So those are my main rules of things to avoid.
Here's some ideas of things I like to start with.
Catchy phrases followed by action are my favorite ways to start. It's always a good idea to tell us something about the person in the first scene, help us get to know and like them and have a glimpse of what their ordinary life is like. Then, when the thing the story is about starts, we know them well enough to care what happens to them.
When I say a catchy phrase followed by action, I don't necessarily mean you say something clever and then jump into a car chase or something similar. It doesn't have to be dramatic action, it just has to be something interesting happening, even if that's just a walk to the corner store, or meeting a friend, or whatever. For example, in one of my books, it starts with a character and his family all having their hair dyed in the kitchen. They're not doing anything dramatic, but we learn a lot about them, and we wonder why on earth does everyone have to dye their hair? That's the question asked in the first paragraph and the next couple of pages answer all that before the real action of the story starts.
I'll give you an example from a story I wrote, so you can see what I mean.
The trick to being invisible is not to try, because nothing sticks out worse than someone who doesn't want to be seen.
Hopefully, that makes you wonder what this person is up to that requires them to be stealthy. You can already tell it's someone who has been doing that for a while, too.
Now, the first line plus the rest of the first paragraph:
The trick to being invisible is not to try, because nothing sticks out worse than someone who doesn't want to be seen. Good old brazen cheek will get you way further, at least, it always did for me. Today, it earned me a stolen lunch. I’ll feel bad about it later, but for now, I just need to escape from the grinding hunger for a little while. Not that a pack of rubbery gas station sushi will give me much relief, but it's better than nothing, and anything that tastes this gross has to be good for me.
So, as you can see, I started with a first line to try and hook your attention. Then followed with a paragraph that asks more questions than it answers, while still telling us a bit more about the character. Now we know that she's a bit of a seasoned mischief-maker, is in some sort of situation that has left her hungry enough to steal, and that it's set in a time and place that has gas stations. It also lets you know the sort of story this is likely to be--if it's starting with a girl stealing lunch, there's probably going to be some exciting action on the way.
With a bit of luck, that is enough to make someone want to keep reading the next paragraph, and hopefully the rest of the story.
One thing it's important to note is, even though so far this story has gone through a first draft and a couple of revisions--it's still had a different beginning from a different character through each of them. It all depends on what will work for the story in the long run, and often you won't have a clue about that when you write the first draft. SO, don't sit staring at the screen for hours and hours trying to find the perfect words to start with. Just get writing and worry about the magnificent first line later. Chances are it will hit you when you least expect it!
Let me know in the comments if you still have any questions!