Some of us spend a countless amount of time thinking about those first few lines. We are told over and over again, by countless sources, those first words are absolutely essential. In the 2016 Guide to Literary Agents it is explained that, “Writing a compelling first page is very difficult. It’s a balancing act of action, description, and dialogue, and somehow – no matter what it is you are writing about – you’ve got to make it interesting and employ a unique voice” (p. 42).
While the above example is talking about the first page, others talk about the first sentence or sentences. This article, 7 Keys to Write the Perfect First Line of a Novel, written by Joe Bunting, offers a bunch of famous beginnings you can sort through. You’ll see all the usual suspects – Melville, Dickens, Rowling, Tolkien, and a few unexpected ones.
What this article offers, and the book I listed above allude to, is the idea that you need to find a unique twist to somehow blow the readers mind to pieces. The underlying concept is that you must be original.
I don’t know if I agree with this sentiment of originality. Not entirely.
When I think of beginnings I think of one I say almost everyday to my son, “Once upon a time.” When you hear those words, what do you think of? I think of magic beans, talking animals, witches, heroes, and princesses. For many of us, those stories are the first stories we ever hear. They are the building blocks of our own lexicon of stories and mythology. It is stamped into our brains. Hardwired. When we see that line, it opens a door. A door encouraging us to believe in the unbelievable, to dream, to hope, and to imagine.
Is it any surprise when George Lucas penned, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” it became such a classic line? When you see that line (assuming you are familiar with Star Wars) you think of Jedi, lightsabers, The Force, and a host of other Star Wars related concepts. But at the core of, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…,” is, “Once upon a time.” His first line tapped into the power of those countless childhood stories, and he wielded it wisely.
For me, when I saw that line for the first time I was a just a kid. My dad said, “You’ll love these movies Corey.” I shoved the tape into a VCR, smashed the tracking button until the image was clear, and carefully read the scrolling prompt. That first line hooked me. It threw the door open to imagination.
This door became harder to open the older I got.
The door became harder to open because the more I learned about writing, the more rules were shoved down my throat. Teachers, instructors, and experts, tell us, “No, no, no, not like that – like this!” or, “It’s a good first line, but it seems pretty similar to [insert story].”
In the struggle for originality, many authors stray from one of the core concepts of storytelling. This concept is that the line should work to transport someone into your world. It’s a cue, overt or covert, that opens the forgotten door and encourages them to once again – believe in the unbelievable. It doesn’t have to be some crazy twist of phrase. It doesn’t have to be packed with hidden metaphors and symbolism. It can be, but it doesn’t HAVE to be.
I would encourage you to look at children’s books for inspiration. This article, 100 Best Opening Lines From Children’s Books, is a great compilation of those works. Despite the primary audience of these books being children, the opening lines have great impact.
They have great impact because all of us were children at one point. It is a universal concept uniting each and everyone one of us. All of us, at some point in time, dared to believe in the unbelievable. We didn’t care how crazy it seemed.
For me, I spent hours of my childhood trying to use The Force to move things around in my room. I believed, beyond reason, if I just tried hard enough, it might just happen. I could be a Jedi. I just had to believe.
It never happened for me. I never did move something with my mind. And here I am now with a child of my own. Despite my childhood being long gone, sometimes, when no one is looking, I still try to move things with my mind. I part of me still believes.
That’s the power of a story. That’s the power of a beginning. Don’t stress originality, tell your story. If the story is yours, the beginning will be too.
That’s it for today! Do you have a story from your childhood that impacts you to this day? Do you have an opening line that really rocked your socks off? I’d love to hear about it. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!