By Daniel Ford
I want you to think of how some of your favorite books began. While you ponder that, here are a couple of mine:
“It was inevitable: the scent of almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”—Love in the Time of Cholera
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”—To Kill a Mockingbird
“Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat.”—A People’s History of the United States
“He was the last one to act.”—Sid Sanford LIVES!
Okay, I cheated; the last one is from my novel that hasn’t been published yet. Hey, I wrote it, it can be my favorite if I want dammit.
The scariest thing about sitting down to write is trying to figure out where to start. You’ve got one chance to make a first impression. Your book cover did a great job of getting that book into a reader’s hands, but you’ve got to do the rest of the heavy lifting when that reader turns to the first page. What’s your “Call my Ishamel” or “You better not never tell nobody but God''? Thinking about your opening line should keep you up at night because you want it to one day keep readers up at night long past their bedtimes.
Usually, there is much more coffee than featured in this photo.
I happen to love beginnings. It’s the middles and the ends I struggle with, and really who needs them? With a few exceptions, you’re never going to love a novel as much as you do when you first start it. I wish I could write a novel with only beginnings and get away with it. No plot, no character development, just setting up a world that I might some day want to revisit.
Originally, I went about writing the beginning to my novel after I had written just about everything else. At that point, my novel wasn’t a novel. It was a collection of stories based on this guy I hadn’t grown into yet. I had a loose idea in my idea of smoothing all the stories out to make one coherent story, but everything I had so far was a slew of middles and half an ending.
Then I started thinking about poker. That’s because I was playing a lot of it at the time. I didn’t have much money to lose, but I lost a lot of it during random Tuesday night poker games in Queens. It wasn’t the gambling that was addicting; it was being around a group of friends sitting around a table with a couple of beers and a vague knowledge of how to take each other’s money. I even organized a poker game for my family one weekend that had more color and suspect card playing than a heated game of Go Fish between 3-year-olds.
So I had a bunch of characters I loved and a desperate need to introduce them in a way that was true to them and the story I was trying to tell. And I had a table, some poker chips, and a deck of cards. Putting the two together after weeks of sleepless nightmares and frightening re-writes was like getting the card you needed on the river. The beginning began to suck me in slowly and seductively, and it’s sucked in at least three of the people you’ve read my novel thus far. The idea is out there, you’ve just got to patiently follow the breadcrumbs and not be tempted by subpar openings just to get to your plot.
Some other things to think about when settling on your first lines:
- No idea is a bad idea at first. Get it all out there. You never know which bad idea is going to lead to a better one.
- Don’t be afraid to leave your beginning until the end. Beginnings are where you’re going to make your money, so revisit it often and take time at the end of your process to make sure it reflects your characters and themes.
- A shocking beginning isn’t necessarily a good one. You don’t want to overpromise at the start and then under-deliver in the end. You’re building a world, don’t light it on fire with your opening lines if you can’t fan the flames or put it out in the middle.
During my high school graduation speech, I said that there really aren’t endings; there are only more beginnings. Endings were really a chance to take a breath before diving into what’s next. That’s what you want your opening to be like for your reader. A huge gulp of air before dipping beneath the surface of your words, only to rise again when your next beginning makes them long for the oxygen of temptation.
Now go write. Always.
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