I hope you’ve had a blessed couple of weeks since I wrote last! Where I live in the south, we are sniffing the winds of spring; the first wildflowers, henbit, are spreading in little purple carpets on the grass, and a few dogwoods and redbuds are nudging out blossoms. If I listen, hardly a minute goes by where I don’t hear a bird call. Spring is my favorite season!
Speaking of beginnings, how do you like to begin your stories? Beginnings are one of the most significant aspects of a book, so it’s helpful if you know how to get them right. But it varies from story to story, that’s for sure, so there’s no single, fits-all formula, unless it’s to give it your best efforts.
Some general rules are out there, however, so let’s take a look! First of all, what do I mean by a beginning? A beginning sentence, paragraph, page, chapter? All of them, because they’re all vital to a first impression. Let’s think about the beginning sentence and paragraph first. You’ll want to open with something attention-grabbing, something that lures the reader to read further until he or she can have some idea of what’s going on. If an opening sentence is clogged with boring language, or a lead paragraph bogged down in pointless or hard-to-understand detail, the reader will have a harder time getting into the book.
As for the content of the beginning, and where it comes in the story’s timeline, that is up to the story. I like to think the beginning paragraph should hint at the overall “feel” of the book and its theme. The beginning is often one of the most powerful and memorable scenes, and if you create a certain impression and expectation with it, it should be consistent with what the readers will find in the rest of the book. My theory comes from openings like Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a great fortune, must be in want of a wife,” where the tongue-in-cheek style and reference to marriage foreshadow the tone and plotline.
The beginning could come in the very commencement of the action of the story, i.e., when the hero first learns he must go on a journey, or it could come after the journey’s begun and use flashbacks later on to debrief the readers. The latter method, starting your story “in the middle of things,” could make it more intriguing. However you decide to begin, don’t forget that you can change the lead sentences as often as you wish before you call the manuscript done. That’s what editing is for! So don’t stress over the perfect beginning right when you are just putting out to sail.
When we think about the first pages and chapter one, something to keep in mind is to avoid “information dump,” where you tell the reader everything there is to know about the situation or characters’ backgrounds. That slows things down when what the reader really wants is advancing the story you started with. “Information dump” can be edited in a second draft, if you find it helpful to include more information for your own sake at first.
We could say a lot more about writing a beginning, but perhaps looking at examples is the best thing to do! Here is a brief list of potentially engaging ways to begin a story. Maybe they’ll spark some ideas!
1) A description of an interesting or beautiful landscape or setting (actually one of my favorite ways that books can begin! Emily of New Moon, L.M. Montgomery, is an example)
2) A quirky or memorable statement of fact (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen; A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens)
3) An intense action scene (From the Dark to the Dawn, Alicia A. Willis)
4) A description of an interesting character, especially the main character (Emma, Jane Austen)
5) Dialogue (The Scent of Water, Elizabeth Goudge)
6) The feelings or thoughts of a major character (The Sign of the Beaver, Elizabeth George Speare)
7) An intriguing action that makes you curious to know more (The Golden Goblet, Eloise Jarvis McGraw)
What is one of your favorite-ever beginning sentences, either from a book you love or a story you’ve written?
Kelsey Bryant is an author, blogger, and copy editor who loves the Lord. She revels in many things: the beauty of God's Word, the music of English, the wonder of nature, the joy of creativity, the freedom of motion, the richness of literature, the intrigue of history ... and much more. To learn more about her, visit her website or blog.