Begin, Again

“The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are.” (Anonymous)

On the surface of things, it might sound like I am still in the same place I was the other day with my post about grabbing a reader’s attention with the first line: Start Here. I began this morning thinking about what today’s post would be about. To encourage my thinking I went outside to work in the garden, and the neighbor’s dog nearly convinced me to write about him – and about the couple that pulled their car up outside my house last week, apparently intending to let their dog relieve itself on my lawn. The first dog barked for three quarters of the hour I was outside. The second dog was deterred by the newly watered grass, and the owner gave up entirely when I went to stand out on the front porch giving her my best Evil Eye. From my perspective, both incidents are linked, and it isn’t actually the dogs that had me gnashing my teeth and my Thinking Time totally thrown off track.
Going inside, I calmed myself with a bowl of dark chocolate custard and some classical music. Washing dishes while the custard cooked (note to self: cover the custard next time or you’ll have to lick the inside of the microwave again) provided the Thinking Time I had been looking for in the garden. Only a couple of other ideas presented themselves, and the whole “Great Beginnings” theme kept knocking the others down. I just wasn’t done with it, or it wasn’t done with me.
So here we are, beginning again.
Let me quote myself:
Your actual narrative should start just before, or even during, the first confrontation or conflict.
All well and good, but how do you decide where in the middle of the action to start? I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules about that. (Which brings to mind Somerset Maugham’s quote, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”) Experience will certainly help you figure out where to begin, but that leaves the inexperienced weeping and wailing. Letting the story speak for itself is another option. As you are considering the confrontational scene (I like to play it in my head like a movie), what fragment most fiercely captures your emotions? That’s the one. Take it and run. Skip the back story, the explanations for why your Main Character is doing whatever it he is doing, the whole history of the situation – and just go with that wonderful, exciting kernel. 
Beginning with action makes the reader ask questions. What’s going on? Why is it going on? How will it be resolved? Having questions will encourage the reader to turn the page and kaboom! You’ve got him. After that, you can dole the explanations out carefully and in small portions in order to keep him turning those pages or clicking the ‘next’ arrow on his e-reader. 
One more thing: Go to your bookshelf and pull out a bunch of books. Read the first lines and study how they affect you. We touched on this a little the other day with a list of some famous first lines. I want to give you some more that I’ve harvested from my own bookshelves, and out of the bunch I brought to my desk, I only rejected two as boring. 
  • The book of the mad priest Nisses is large, say those who have held it, and as heavy as a small child. — Tad Williams, The Dragonbone Chair (1988)
  • A string buzzed against his fingernail; the finger itself slipped, and the beat was lost. — R. A. MacAvoy, Damiano (1983)
  • The qhal found the first Gate on a dead world of their own sun. — C. J. Cherryh, Exile’s Gate, (1988)
  • Darkness. Silence. The weight of solitude. — Jennifer Roberson, Lady of the Forest (1992)
  • So, now. One day soon they hang me for a rogue. — Stephen Lawhead, Scarlet (2007)
  • The scream tore the night apart. — Anne Perry, Tathea (1999)
  • About ten years ago, losing all rationality, I decided to take up golf. — James Scott Bell, Revision & Self-Editing (2008)
  • The era, in retrospect, was very kind to dumb ideas. — Chris Baty, No Plot? No Problem! (2004)
  • Does good writing matter any more? — Jan Venolia, Write Right! (2001)
  • When my girlfriend stops by my studio, I thrill her with the words every woman wants to hear. — Eric Meyer, On CSS (2002)
  • As the author, I’m supposed to tell you something in this introduction to make you want to buy this book, so how’s this? — Scott Kelby, Photoshop 6 Down and Dirty Tricks (2001)
Wow. I don’t know about you, but I want to go read every one of those (again). Right now. Fiction or not. I want to know what’s next! I want answers! My curiosity is fully engaged and, particularly in the case of the first line from Jan Venolia’s book, my emotions. I am feeling inspired! I can write a cool, attention-grabbing first line! Rawr!
I can see you looking at me askance. “Can you really?” you are saying.
I’ll let you be the judge. 
  • I am called Crow, and I am a thief. —(my current WIP)
  • The child shoved his feet against the packed earth floor of the cottage, jamming his back into the corner where the walls met. —(my very first novel, which I also call my Practice Novel)
  • Bart took a deep breath, then let it out again slowly; it was going to work. —(novel on the back burner)
  • They said it was magical. They said it was dangerous. —(In the Mirror, short story available on Smashwords. Have you read it yet? Yes, this is a shameless plug!)
  • Dragonlace covered the entrance to the cave, creating a filmy, sparkling barrier reminiscent of a spider’s web. —(short story, submitted for publication)
  • He was going to fail again, and he knew it. (short story for a writer’s group)
  • Shifting shadows beneath the giant greenwood trees gave an eerie appearance to the forest that was only intensified by the swirling drifts of mist that came in from the sea. (another shortie)
I may be prejudiced, but I think I’ve got the hang of this. What do you think? And what are some of your first lines? I would love to see them!

If you want even more insight into conjuring those elusive hooks, read Therese Walsh’s The First Sentence as an Amuse-Bouche, where she goes into some detail about making that first line work hard – and lists some more great opening lines.

4 thoughts on “Begin, Again

  1. I think you have first lines down. I, like many writers, have struggled with the issue of where to start. I feel it is not just the middle of the action but rather the most interesting and compelling moment of the protagonist during that action.

    Great post, Robin!

  2. @genelempp "… not just the middle of the action but rather the most interesting and compelling moment of the protagonist during that action."

    Exactly! The moment that most fiercely captures your emotions! And if you can infuse the written word with the emotion you feel/see in your character, you're in like Flynn.

    Thanks, Gene! Love your input – now where are your beginning sentences? 😀

  3. Excellent post, Robin! Thank you for your blog efforts. They always help me in my writing.

    Opening lines, eh? Here are a few of mine:

    – "For as long as I live, I will never understand why you waited so long, son." (Alenon's Fire)

    – His mother called him Yodhi. (Sanguis Dei – soon to be available on Smashwords. I hope.)

    – In the beginning, I stood on windswept foothills beneath an azure sky. (My WIP)

    – Dr. Laurin Montar gestured with a scowl at the board before her where lights blinked and icons waited to be touched. "This is not what I'd planned." (Untitled work from 93)

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