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Begin at the Beginning … or Maybe Not

Flickr Creative Commons: Roan Fourie

Lewis Carroll advises, through his creation the King of Hearts: “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end. Then stop.”

The King of Hearts is speaking about telling a story aloud, to a listener. As novelists, we don’t always tell our story in chronological order, and that’s fine. But when we do break the King’s rule, we need to know why we’ve chosen to do that, and why it’s the best way to start this particular book.

A few things to keep in mind as we try to pin down that opening sentence and scene …

Principle #1:  The beginning of the story is rarely the beginning of the POV character’s life (unless you begin with his birth). The character had a history and an existence before the events in the book occurred.

So where do we enter the character’s life?  Before the key event happens, the one that launches the tale? Right smack in the middle of the event? Afterward, when the character is grappling with the consequences?

Take the first sentence of Barbara O’Neal’s novel When We Believed in Mermaids, as an example.  “My sister has been dead for nearly fifteen years when I see her on the TV news.”  This is the hinge, the moment when Kit’s world is upended. O’Neal opens her book right at the pivotal instant.

She could have begun in a different place, of course. She could have shown us Kit’s life as-it-is before the inciting incident occurred.  Or she could have started with Kit boarding a plane to New Zealand where she will search for the sister she now thinks is alive—after the inciting incident—and reveal the events that led up to the plane ride bit-by-bit.

Kathryn Craft’s The Art of Falling also opens in mid-story, though differently. She shows protagonist Penelope as-she-is-now, after certain key events have taken place, but before the main story begins to unfold. Certainly, Craft could have opened the book by showing us the event that landed Penelope in the hospital. Instead, she chose to withhold that event until the reader has had time to bond with the protagonist.

In her recent—and brilliantly structured—book The Last Flight, Julie Clark opens with a short prologue on the day of the flight, the pivotal moment, and everything that follows is told in relation to how long before or after that moment it occurred. It isn’t until the very end of the book that we are back in the “day of” and learn what happened.

One of the most perfect openings ever, to me, is the first line of  Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”  Ng has begun smack in the middle of the story and let the reader know the very thing that the characters will spend most of the book trying to find out. We read to find out why Lydia died and how—something that’s not fully revealed until the very end.

There are many books that proceed from beginning to end, following chronology, just as the King of Hearts recommends.  Lily King’s Writers and Lovers and  Jennifer Rosner’s The Yellow Bird Sings do that, and it suits the stories they’re telling.

No right or wrong, better or worse. Just different ways to do it.

Principle #2: The story and the book aren’t necessarily the same thing. If that sounds odd, think of it this way: sometimes the book opens long after the story has concluded, as the POV character looks back and reflects.

Elizabeth Strout does exactly this in My Name is Lucy Barton, which begins: “There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks.”  The book begins long after than the story that Lucy is about to relate took place.

There are many other examples. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee opens in the voice of the narrator, Scout, looking back over a long span of time: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.”

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez straddles two time frames in his unforgettable opening sentence: “’Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Principle #3:  The beginning can be in-scene or in-voice—that is, with a statement about how the world works or a commentary that shows how the POV character views the world. The first is what we tend to think of as showing, the second as telling.

There’s nothing wrong with telling; great authors have been launching their books that way for years.  One could hardly think of a better opening line than either of these:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” 

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy:  “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

More currently, Kristin Hannah does the same thing in the opening sentence of The Nightingale:

“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this; in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”

These books begin with a statement about how life works—the book’s premise. The story that follows will demonstrate that the premise is true.

In other cases, the story takes us right into the mind of the narrator, letting us know what kind of narrator this is and how he or she perceives the world. Nothing actually “happens” for a while. A well-known example is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Another is Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides: “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”

No inciting incident, not yet.  The book begins with the narrator’s voice—with character, rather than event.

In other cases, the reader is plunged right into an event.

The Dark Tower by Stephen King: “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: “There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.”

Again, one way isn’t better than another. It depends on the kind of story and the author’s style.

Principle #4: An opening can do several things at once.

Here are the opening lines of my own novel, Queen of the Owls:

Everyone had to meet somewhere. If Elizabeth thought about it that way, the fact that she met Richard at a Tai Chi class was no more or less auspicious than a first meeting at—say, a book store or bus stop. It was only later, looking back, that everything seemed heavy with meaning.

The first sentence is a statement about how the world works; the second is a retrospective reflection; and the third gives a hint of Elizabeth’s character as someone introspective and analytical. The overall effect of the paragraph is to raise a story question about Richard’s impact on Elizabeth’s life. It also lets us know that Elizabeth is the POV character and that this is going to be a contemporary, realistic novel.

How can you know which kind of opening you should you use?  That is, how can you determine the “right moment” to begin the story?

Beginning early means taking the time for a gradual (but intentional) build-up to the inciting incident—and the story question that follows—in order to acquaint the reader with the setting and characters.

If you start the book too early, however, you might fail to engage the reader’s interest.

If you’re concerned that you’ve started too soon, try starting the book with the second scene, or even the second chapter? If you’re sure this absolutely is the right scene to open the book, try deleting the first paragraph, or just the first sentence.  For example:

I was pulling the overgrown cone-flowers from the patch of garden near the deck when I heard a buzzing behind me. The bee had come out of nowhere. Instinctively, I raised a hand to ward it off, and it stung me by the corner of my right eye.

Now get rid of the first sentence.  Much stronger, right?  You can let the reader know later that you’re in the garden.

You can try that with whole paragraphs as well.

Beginning later means that the inciting incident has already happened and its consequences are already in motion.

If you start too late, you might end up with extensive flashbacks that break the momentum and end up lowering the tension.

If you’re concerned that you’ve started too late, consider whether you may want to open with the inciting incident itself—or even sooner. For example, you can begin with an evocative scene that shows us something important about your POV character.

Try imagining a situation that would show something important about your protagonist—how she responds to the unexpected, like a small challenge or encounter or interruption, that gives the reader a telling glimpse into what she’s like in her “life as usual” state. This small scene, preceding the inciting incident or “horizontal” to it (i.e., outside the main narrative line) will introduce the character and allow the reader to bond before things start to heat up, thus enhancing the reader’s stake in the story that follows.

And now we come to Principle # 5: There’s no “right place” to begin. Experiment!

Try starting your story in different ways: with a bit of dialogue, a descriptive detail about something in the immediate environment, a reflection, a gesture.  See what that brings.

You can also look at books you admire, identify where the author began the story, and visualize what the book would have been like if she had begun sooner or later. In other words: experiment!

No matter which kind of opening you decide on, remember that the beginning and the ending of a book are mirror images. It’s only when the reader comes to the end of the story that the beginning will be fully illuminated. In fact, John Grisham, author of twenty-eight best-selling novels, advises: “Don’t write the first scene until you know the last one.”

What about you? Is there an opening line from a book that you absolutely love? Anyone brave enough to share the opening line of the story you’re working on now?

About Barbara Linn Probst [1]

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES launches in April 2021. Before switching to fiction, Barbara published a book for parents of quirky kids and more scholarly articles than she cares to remember. She has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.