The best selling book of all time starts with those words. It’s as familiar and enticing as “Once upon a time…” inviting you to enter another life, another time and place.
Call me Ishmael.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
Everyone has a favorite opening line or two or three. Search for “beginning a novel,” and you find hundreds of millions of articles—some more relevant than others, but they all seem to agree about the importance of the first page, if not the first sentence.
But what about your own book? Every book starts with an idea, a thought that will soon be a story, complete with beginning, middle, and end. The details won’t be clear at first, the ending might even be uncertain, but even pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants rather than using an outline) have a basic idea before sitting at the keyboard, and even outliners can end up with a completely different book than the original outline suggested. That’s why the first draft is called a first draft. It is still malleable and the pearls are not necessarily strung the right way.
So, back to the beginning—your beginning. It has to pack a punch. The punch doesn’t have to be an upper cut to the jaw or a kick in the stomach, unless your book is a thriller or action adventure. A good beginning evokes an emotion. It can make the reader laugh, or be ripe with promise of young love, or set a dark mood of mystery or impending disaster. If you’re writing nonfiction, the beginning can promise to solve a problem for the reader, it should reach the pain points.
If you’re writing memoir, the beginning is particularly challenging. Why would a reader want to read your story? Your job is to form a bond with the reader. Give them a reason to like you and take an interest in your story. This can be your good humor in the face of difficulties, or your willingness to jump into an adventure they can share with you.
One not-so-secret secret is that the beginning of the book is seldom the beginning of the story. The background can be told in bits and snippets as the story progresses, or even in full-fledged flashbacks. You must know the time line of the story intimately, but you’d be surprised how many “vital” pieces don’t have to be written into the book. When the reader needs some background to understand a scene or character’s action, feed that piece of the background.
When you sit down to write, don’t stare at a blank screen stressing over the killer opening. Write your story. You can come back any time you write a scene that strikes you as a powerful beginning, even if it’s not the beginning of the story. If that scene is in chapter three, it doesn’t mean the first two chapters were wasted time, your pearls can be strung in a different order.
Do you have a favorite book beginning? Please share with your fellow writers.
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