“In the beginning, heaven and earth were created, and in the beginning you should move them to get off to a good start.” (Jack Webb, author)
Most of the people I know start reading fiction at the beginning of the book. That’s where you’re supposed to start, right? That means the beginning has to be good. It has to reach out and grab the reader’s attention from the very first sentence, the very first paragraph.
But how does an author do that? She catches the reader’s emotions in the first instant.
Generally, we’ve all been taught to begin in medias res: in the middle of things – which means that those beginning words will be a good way along in the story you’re imagining. Your actual narrative should start just before, or even during, the first confrontation or conflict. Skip the mundane details and plunge right into the tale. Like fireworks going off, that first pop! grabs the attention, and the shimmer of light fulfills the promise the sound made.
Ansen Dibell, in his book Plot, tells us that “Every effective beginning needs to do three things. The chief of these is to get the story going and show what kind of story it’s going to be. The second is to introduce and characterize the protagonist. The third is to engage the reader’s interest in reading on.”
You can capture your reader’s attention by appealing to their senses.
You can capture your reader’s attention by showing an arrival or departure – and showing that things will never be the same again.
You can capture your reader’s attention with dialogue that presents conflict.
Take a look at some of these famous first lines:
• It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
• It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
• I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
• Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)
• It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
• The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. —L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)
How does yours measure up? What are some of your favorite first lines? I’d love to see what you’ve got!