Because Every Story Has to Start Somewhere
My ten-year-old sister Ruthie started writing a book this week. Well, according to her, she wrote an entire book. It is eight chapters (read: eight pages) long and entirely handwritten. With illustrations drawn in with a hot pink gel pen. It cracks me up to see her sitting in a corner scribbling away at random pieces of paper, though, because it reminds me that no one is too young to start writing. She’s getting a head start on me, since I didn’t write my first short story until I was in middle school (except for one embarrassing attempt in first grade). But she let me read it when she was finished and it was actually a really cute story.
I think the best part of her story, though, was the first sentence. “Once upon a time there was an ugly girl named Charlet (Charlotte).” I don’t think Ruthie realizes how great of an opening line that is. Books about pretty, perfect girls are overrated. An opening sentence like that catches my attention. Why is it so important for me to know that this Charlet (Charlotte) is ugly? How does that affect her story and her perspective? A genius move by the ten-year-old. 😉
After thinking about Ruthie’s opening line and how much I loved it, I was inspired to write a blog post today about the importance of a great opening sentence in a book. While I’ve only ever written two or three full-sized novels (two of which are published or being published with Zondervan), I’ve written about a gazillion short stories/unfinished novels and I’ve had experiences with pretty good and pretty bad openings. So I thought I’d go through some of my own hits and misses, and see what you all think!
First, let’s go ahead and start with Interrupted. How many of you have read it? What did you think of the opening line/chapter? I personally was pretty happy with the way Interrupted started.
“I stared at the ceiling in silence. Although it was so dark I don’t think it could really be called staring at all. More like tilting my chin up in that direction.”
The overall mood of the book is very poetic, very soft. And the first scene really reflects that. You get a feeling right off the bat that this is a book that is going to make you cry and make you feel really sweet and peaceful in the end. And it breaks my usual rule of starting with dialog. When I was younger, I really liked to start off a story with a snippet of dialog, to throw the reader into a scene and make him feel engaged. I haven’t been doing that as much lately. But I still think it works.
Chasing Jupiter has a much different opening line. Here it is:
“Every story has to start somewhere. Mine starts with a list. A list that was written on a sheet of yellow construction paper, folded neatly into fourths, and pushed under my bedroom door so that I brushed it with my foot when I got up that morning.”
I was really proud of that opening line. It catches your interest. What kind of list is it? Who wrote it? Why was it shoved under her door? Intriguing, right? [This is where I would brag that my editor wrote “Nice opening paragraph” in her edits copy she sent to me. You know, if I was into bragging] Once again, it doesn’t start with dialog, but it still works. It draws you in. Which is always a plus for me, since my stories don’t usually tend to involve a lot of action or plot twists.
The first ever longer-length story I wrote was a novella called “Love Leaves a Memory” (cheesy, right?) that I worked on from 2007-2008. So I was twelve or thirteen when I started it? All I remember is that I worked on it with my writing coach for a while and then finished it by myself. Here’s the opening paragraph for that story:
“My heart raced as I leaned against the cold, brick wall. I crept down the stairs, carpetbag in hand, hugging the wall. Creak. An old, worn step groaned. I held my breath. Did anyone hear?”
Not bad for a twelve-year-old. The rest of the story much lamer in comparison. Think Irish orphan, running away from an arranged marriage, living with other orphans in America, and falling in love with a rich guy. There was also some sickness and death involved, of course. It wasn’t a great story, but the opening line helped it out a little. Very mysterious and suspenseful. What is she running from? Is she going to get caught? Do I want her to get caught? I don’t think I do…
Now here is an example of a very bad opening line from a story I wrote in maybe 2008? Can’t remember the exact date on this one, but it’s bad.
“Fifteen-year-old Emily Windsor sighed and wiggled her bare toes. Sullenly, she kicked the bottom porch step. ‘Ouch,’ she muttered. She looked up at the sky and squinted. It seemed so far away and distant.”
Let’s start by asking the question: Rachel, why on earth did you write a story in third-person? I actually have no idea. Because I really, really dislike third-person narratives (don’t know why) and it really does not work for me. Plus this opening is just really boring and doesn’t make me want to read any more of the story. Never open a book with someone being bored or depressed. It’s not interesting, it’s just that—boring and depressing.
Lastly, here’s one that I’m not really sure about. This is a story that I absolutely love and feel a strong emotional connection to, but I never actually finished it. It lacked humor, and got too depressing too quickly. I still think it was a fantastic plot idea, and I don’t want to talk too much about it because I may one day finish this and publish it. But for now I’m stuck and unsure about this book. Some of my favorite scenes I’ve ever written are in this story, though, and sometimes I feel like they need to be published anyway, despite all the depressing-ness. Here’s the opening two paragraphs:
“The sweet smell of spring grass tickled my nose, brushing against my cheek. I curled my toes and breathed in. The mountain air was crisp. It burned my lungs and froze my nose.
I opened my eyes and stared up at the big blue sky above me. Little wisps of clouds floated across it, not high above the tree tops. If I was a cloud, I would float and float and never come down. I smiled at the thought.”
Like I said, I’m unsure about it. What do you think? Boring or sweet? It does kind of fit in with the rest of the book, though. I know I’m being very vague, but what if I want to publish it one day??? I don’t want to give out too many details, but I’m fine with sharing the opening at least. 🙂
So, those are my thoughts on openings. I know it’s kind of rambling in parts, and I probably should have taken the time to request the rights to other authors’ books so I could give you more variety, but I decided to take the lazy route and just share mine instead.
I’m interested in hearing your thoughts, though! What do you think makes a great opening paragraph? What openings have made you cringe? I’m sure I’m not the only one to have a few of those in my repertoire…