Last month, I spoke at T. Greenwood’s Novel Writing class at Grossmont College in El Cajon, CA. She asked me to talk about beginnings since that’s what the class was studying.
I thought about what I consider when I begin writing a book. Of course, there’s the important decision of where to start your story within the plot. But what about the micro-beginning, like a first line? I pulled out my books and looked at all my first sentences, wondering if I could find a common thread. I could see one among the women’s fiction.
“I had always been a disobedient girl.” (How to Be an American Housewife)
“For a moment, I think I have made a mistake.” (The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns)
“People in my family are pathologically incapable of asking anyone for help.” Sisters of Heart and Snow (after the prologue)
Each first line somehow encapsulates the character and the theme of the book. I had never thought about that too hard before. It seemed to be something I did without thinking about it.
I looked at my kids’ fantasy book Momotaro: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters next.
“I shuffle through my notes once, twice, three times, feeling sweat starting to trickle down my sides and from my palms.”
I suppose that first line could be construed as a theme, since the main character spends much of the book being nervous, but I’d also consider that to be a stretch of the imagination. It’s just more descriptive.
Now I was curious. Do other authors have a first sentence like the one I’d noticed? Was I a one-off? I pulled some random books off my shelf to look at their first lines.
“I am a man you can trust, is how my customers view me.” A Patchwork Planet, Anne Tyler.
“Snowflakes danced through the evening light.” Six Four, Hideo Yokoyama.
“Everyone has a Cordova story, whether they like it or not.” Night Film, Marisha Pessl.
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston.
Six Four begins with a description. It’s a crime fiction novel. Momotaro is a fantasy and more of a “commercial” novel. Also description.
The others have a more literary bent and their first lines certainly seem to have the quality of encapsulating the novel’s mood or the main character’s essence. So perhaps being more literary is the thread tying them all together.
At the class, I challenged the students to look at their works-in-progress and come up with a first line or two that serves the same purpose. About five were eager to read theirs aloud, and a few made us gasp with their beauty.
Perhaps it doesn’t work with all genres, but if you find your beginning feels a little blah, it’s certainly something you could try. See if it unlocks anything else. Or if it unlocks nothing.
How do you start your stories? Would you try this exercise with your work in progress?
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