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The Write Stuff: In the Beginning

By David Flin

I’ve sometimes been asked how to get started on a piece. Everyone knows that the first paragraph of a story is the most important, because that is what gets readers hooked, or drives them away. Everyone knows that it’s vital to get the first paragraph as good as it can possibly be, and many prospective authors become fixated on getting that first paragraph right, and never get beyond that.

Different authors find different ways around this. Some authors leave writing the first paragraph until the end, with some writing the ending first, so that they know what the final mood is that they wish to foreshadow.

That’s all very well if one has the whole book more or less planned out in advance of writing, but that requires dedication and commitment to doing this before getting started.

However, it also means that it is much more likely that the story will ever get written.

I’m lucky. When I’m writing for fun, I regard it as a first draft. Quite often, I have no idea where the story is going. That’s a style that isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I’ve found it can be quite liberating. When I do this, I frequently have to revisit the opening paragraph, but that’s what first drafts are for.

Whether you choose to write with the story’s structure already sorted, or if it as much a voyage of discovery for you as it is for the reader, the first paragraph is vitally important. Those of you familiar with the structure of articles such as this realise that this is the point where I quote the first lines of several famous books. Give yourself a pat on the back.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

“Call me Ishmael.”

“Scott pulled his coat closer about him as the rain increased in intensity. The cold air chilled him, and his back hurt, as it always did when the weather changed.”

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

As you can see, each of them attempts to create a mood, a hook, something to draw the reader’s attention and to intrigue, to create a tantalising mystery, or to show a character. The purpose of the first sentence is to get the reader to read the second.

That’s all very well, but everyone knows what an opening is for. The question is, how do you create a good opening?

You’re setting a mood with the opening, and you’ve only got a few words to encapsulate that mood. Firstly, you’ve got to know what the mood of the story is. You’ve got to know who the target readership is. Let’s say you’re aiming the book at edgy Millennials fascinated by intrigue and conspiracies, and you’ve decided that you’re going to write a story about how a well-meaning political action ends up having hugely negative consequences. You want an opening sentence that somehow encapsulates futility, an element of an outsider looking on, and a feeling that everything is being observed by an uncaring world. The image of a goldfish bowl comes to mind.

“Amanda watched, fascinated. There was a dead goldfish floating at the top of the tank, and the other goldfish were attacking it, nibbling off chunks of flesh. They weren’t hungry. She’d fed them earlier. They were attacking because that was their nature.”

It can be worked on, but it is one possible option.

Remember that you’re trying to set up a mood, you’re trying to set things in motion, and you’re trying to grab the reader and keep them reading. Generally speaking, you want an opening that is easy to read. Don’t use convoluted sentence structures and don’t write as though you have swallowed a thesaurus. You’re unlikely to grab the reader’s attention if they’re struggling to understand you. You’re writing to tell a story, not to impress the reader with the extent of your vocabulary. Later on, once the reader is ensnared, you can show off, although I tend to the view that a good story told well is more emotionally satisfying than something where I need a dictionary close to hand.

There’s a possibly apocryphal tale about someone who, when asked to get the basic attractors into the opening of a story, which were defined as being: sex, reference to the nobility, mystery, and vulgarity, and he responded with:

“Damn,” said the Duchess. “I’m pregnant. I wonder who the father is?”

It’s clever, it’s almost certainly apocryphal, and most important, it doesn’t work. It fits all of the guidelines, but it is just trying to cram too much in. By contrast, several of the famous first lines I’ve quoted above work, despite breaking some or all of the guidelines. In particular, Pride and Prejudice has a separated clause, it uses unfamiliar language, it has no action or movement, and yet it works perfectly.

Which brings me to my final suggestion. Once you’ve got that first paragraph, read it out loud. It’s amazing how much difference it makes reading a phrase out loud. Reading it out loud is how the reader will first perceive it, and that may not be the way sounds in your head. Better yet is to get someone else to read it, but that can be embarrassing.

A final word of warning. If you do get someone else to read it out loud in a public place, make sure it’s not a piece that has unfortunate consequences. Imagine what it’s like when you and your wife are in a coffee shop, and she reads out the Duchess line above.

“Damn. I’m pregnant. I wonder who the father is?”

Trust me, you get looks.

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