I love that frisson of excitement as I turn to page one of a new manuscript. Most of us approach reading a new work with similar anticipation. We are hoping to be transported, beguiled, enticed, to have our curiosity piqued, to be held by someone else’s take on things.
It’s all about tone in the opening sentences and paragraphs, and using the tone to convey a sense of the narrator, the setting, the situation and the atmosphere. English writer Allan Ahlberg says, ‘It’s like the way a piece of knitting is defined by the first row of stitches on your needle. It is the first three or four sentences that establish the feel and rhythm of a book.’
A good opening sentence is simple, raises questions or is surprising in some way. The very best opening lines draw us in because they are like portals to a whole universe. They give promise of what is to come. Irish writer Colum McCann says, ‘A first line should open up your rib cage. It should reach in and twist your heart backward. It should suggest that the world will never be the same again.’ Sounds melodramatic, but even a subtle heart nudge can be profound.
Here are some of my favourite opening sentences:
- Short story: ‘I don’t know how to begin about Effie but I’ve got to because I think you ought to know about her.’ Timothy Findley, ‘About Effie’ in Dinner Along The Amazon (Penguin 1984)
- Novel: ‘If rain had come, things might have turned out differently, that is what I think now; but there were children in Outer Maroo who had never seen rain.’ Janette Turner Hospital, novel Oyster (Knopf 1996)
- Essay: ‘Death is ordinary.’ William T. Vollmann, ‘Three Meditations on Death’ in Rising Up and Rising Down(McSweeney’s Books 2003)
Writers have more than the opening sentences to pique the interest of an agent, editor, publisher or judge of a competitive mentorship program; they have a specific number of words, pages, or chapters. Opening chapters need to introduce the key character/s, set the scene in terms of time and place, present an incident that raises a question or a problem to be solved, establish the voice, and build the tone set in those opening sentences.
Australian writer Cate Kennedy advises writers to ‘Get straight into it. Stories should start on the brink of change, on the precipice of action, and at the latest possible point in order to engage and involve a reader.’ She uses the analogy of the theatre. ‘When the lights come up on an empty stage, how long do you think an audience will sit patiently waiting for something to actually happen? Scarily, the answer is seven seconds. Something of this kind happens in prose, too. A page spent describing furniture or the weather is a page in which you waste your reader‘s time and lose their attention.’
I agree with Cate. I sometimes see manuscripts where the opening chapters are laden with unnecessary details or too much backstory, as if the writer doesn’t trust that the reader will be able to engage with the characters or premise without a lengthy preamble. Good beginnings can often be obtained by amputating the first paragraphs, pages or chapters of a draft – called ‘throat clearing’ by editors. On the other hand, occasionally I see writers starting a little late, with the moment of change having already happened, which can make it difficult for the reader to understand what’s going on and why.
Starting with a bang
In the last five or so years I’ve seen a trend towards writers putting a highly dramatic event in the first chapter. This can be effective, but only if the placement of the event is appropriate to the way the story as a whole is structured. Just as every film does not need to start with a James Bond style wild chase in which the central character’s life is threatened, not every book need begin with an emotionally charged scene.
Kennedy draws attention to a moment of change, not necessarily a moment of incendiary drama. And if you tease out her theatre metaphor, it’s not that the audience is waiting for a real or metaphoric explosion to take place, they are waiting for the imaginary world to be introduced, for the characters to be revealed, for the relationships and events to vibrate with the potentiality of change.
Many writers are under the false understanding that you must have something highly dramatic in chapter one. Yes, you do want to grab the reader’s attention, but even in this day and age where we are saturated by stories in all shapes and forms competing for attention, we don’t need to be hit over the head with a hammer to take note.
It is more helpful to think in terms of the opening chapters encouraging the reader to wonder, explore and question: What’s happening here? How can this possibly be resolved? This points to a problem, dilemma or conflict of some sort being referenced or introduced.
One of the basic principles of story structure is that an incident will happen near the beginning that propels the story forward, sometimes called the ‘inciting incident’. While I don’t think this necessarily has to happen in chapter one, ideally you will reach the inciting incident, a dramatic turning point of some sort, in the opening chapters, and most likely get a little beyond that.
Arriving at the beginning
There is no one way to write a good beginning; it depends on the story being told and on the writer’s style and voice. It is likely to take many drafts. Some writers rework their opening chapters again and again before pushing through the remainder of the manuscript, wanting to get those initial stitches just right. Others know that they won’t be able to nail the opening until they get to the end and find more clarity about the storyline and characters and have honed their voice; they need to knit a version of the whole piece to discover what those initial stitches need to be.
Everyone has their own creative process, but the goal is the same: to captivate and engage the reader, to garner their trust in you as a storyteller, to propel them through to the middle and, ultimately, the end.
Allan Ahlberg, in Gary Disher, Writing Fiction, Allen & Unwin 2001