As an author, one of the decisions I face with each new story is “Where do I begin?” Writers are constantly reminded that a story needs a “hook” at the start, something intriguing that will catch the reader’s attention, lure her in, and compel her to keep reading.
Simple, straight-forward advice, yes. Easy to follow? Not really.
Writing the first lines of a story can be an overwhelming challenge. Those opening lines must do so many things:
- Introduce the main character
- Establish the story settling
- Show an interesting situation
- Suggest immediate conflict
- Arouse curiosity or otherwise “hook” the reader
It’s best, I’ve learned, to not worry too much about the opening lines when I begin a new story. It takes a while for me to get acquainted with my characters, to truly understand their needs, their desires, and their motivations. Until I do get to know them, I can’t possibly figure out where and how to begin sharing their story.
A suggestion that writers often hear is “Start writing. Don’t worry about the beginning. Then, when it’s finished, delete Chapter One and begin the story at Chapter Two.” It’s a joke, yes, but you’d be surprised at how often that advice is accurate.
I think the best piece of advice I’ve ever received about a story’s beginning came from a speaker — whose name I don’t know — at a writer’s conference years ago. Whether you’re writing a short story or an epic novel, he said, always start on the day that’s different.
Although writing isn’t about following rules all the time, that’s one principle I keep in mind as I plan the starting point for a new story. I don’t, however, start at the beginning when I sit down to write. I write lots of different scenes from various places in the story. I choose characters at random, throw them into a scene, and figure out what problems might arise. I play around a lot. I have fun.
Gradually, I see the story emerging.
That’s when it’s time to think about those opening lines.
By that point in the writing process, I know my characters, I know their strengths, their weaknesses, and I have a fairly good idea of the conflicts and complications they’ll be facing in the story. That helps me figure out how to craft that opening scene. I might even sketch the scene out briefly, making a few notes about what will happen and what conflicts the character will be facing.
Now comes the fun part.
I write twenty possible opening sentences. Sometimes I have to include a little note to myself so that I’m sure I understand my thought process. Sometimes I groan. Sometimes I roll my eyes. Sometimes I write anything that comes to mind. Finding twenty possible openings can be a challenge.
But, usually, among those twenty lines, I’ll come across the one that’s right. As soon as I write it, I know it’s the one! What a great feeling it is.
Just for fun, I dug back into my files, and pulled out those twenty possible opening lines I wrote for “Not the Marrying Kind”, the first book of “The Sunset Series”. I knew the opening scene would be Kat Phillips in the kitchen. I wanted the reader to see right off that she had no domestic skills whatsoever.
So, I sat down, picked at my brain a bit, and these are the twenty possibilities I wrote:
- Well, they were supposed to be biscuits.
- Sugar? (As in…you’re supposed to put sugar in apple pie?)
- A hot kitchen was not the place Kat Phillips wanted to be.
- Kat Phillips wished women would stop having their babies at dinnertime.
- Her father was counting on her.
- Had Kat Phillps been the sort of woman who cried when things went wrong, she’d be bawling her eyes out now.
- Kat Phillips stared at the burnt, misshapen lumps of dough.
- Kat slung the pork chops onto the slop pile. (And the dogs whimpered and walked away.) Note: With a vengeance.
- Her mother must be out of her mind to think Kat could handle the evening meal on her own.
- “Well, don’t you look domestic?”
- Why any woman would want to spend time in a kitchen — willingly — was beyond Kat’s comprehension.
- Kat pushed open the kitchen door and stared inside… she might as well be venturing onto foreign soil for all she knew about the place.
- One more meal ruined…but who was counting?
- Funny how time flew by when you were having fun, which explained why it was crawling along right now.
- Kat Phillips was not the sort of woman who cried. (Instead, she cursed.)
- Kat could curse with the best of them.
- “That’s not how Mama does it.” (Emily is commenting upon Kat’s lack of skill in the kitchen.)
- Kat Phillips prayed the parson would be forgiving (at mealtime.)
- Maybe the food would miraculously become edible when Reverend Kendrick blessed it.
- Kat Phillips had a number of talents; cooking wasn’t among them.
If you’ve read “Not the Marrying Kind”, you’ll recognize the opening line. For those who haven’t read it, the one I chose was:
“That’s not the way Mama does it.”
Was that the right place to begin? It worked for me. It gave me a chance to jump right into the story. It let me introduce both Kat and her annoying little sister, Emily Sue. And, yes, the story does begin “on the day that’s different.”
Now that you’ve read through my list of possible opening lines for the story, do you think I chose the right one? I’d love to hear your thoughts about the line I chose — and the ones I didn’t.
Thanks for visiting my blog today.
I love sharing thoughts about my writing.
I hope you enjoy my stories.