Whether you’re writing a novel or an email, getting that opening right is essential for people to listen to your words. As we discussed in a previous blog post, the prospect of writing the first page can be intimidating. But why are beginnings so tricky, and how do we write them?
Why Are Beginnings So Hard?
When I consider buying or borrowing a book, I read the first 50 pages. If I enjoy those pages, I will keep reading. For some, it’s the first line, first page, or first paragraph. Writers are readers, too - they know that getting their piece read by an audience or agent often depends on the opening.
No matter what style or genre of writing you are dealing with, each one’s opening carries certain expectations. The beginning is the first thing your reader will see regardless of what order you write your piece in; first impressions matter in the writing world.
Thinking about living up to these expectations and finding the right words can feel so monumental that writing can feel almost impossible. But it is not as difficult as it may seem to craft a compelling beginning.
What Do Beginnings Achieve?
All beginnings have one goal - to hook the reader. For novels, you need to set up an intriguing plotline, introduce characters, set the tone, and engage the reader. Essays need to present your topic and summarise your following discussion concisely and effectively. Scripts need to lay out the scene, describe the view and characters concisely, and let you visualise the moment.
Laying down your piece’s foundation involves a tricky tightrope walk between necessary and unnecessary exposition, especially in fiction. You don’t want to saddle your reader with too much information right off the bat, but you need enough to draw them in.
Before You Start Writing
Before you begin, you need to know several things, including:
What do you want to say in this piece?
What genre or style would be best to say it in?
What do beginnings typically look like and achieve in this style or genre?
Writers can usually answer the first two, and you can answer the third through analysing similar pieces.
How To Write Your Opening Line
If you play your cards right, your opening line can deliver a lot of information in a few intriguing words. If you knock it out of the park, it could be one of the most remembered quotes from your piece. Let’s look at a few famous opening lines and discuss why they work so well.
"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
One of my favourite classics, Anna Karenina, is a whirlwind of Russian social politics and passionate affairs. It is also a story of family, and Tolstoy puts this theme front and centre right away. Here in the opening line, we learn that we will be dealing with the duality of a happy family face and the inner turmoils of family living. Not only that, but each family we encounter will have some unique reason for its unhappiness. Our narrator is aware of this dichotomy and warns us that this unhappiness is the trigger for many events within the novel. The tone has been set and leaves the reader with a desire for elaboration. Curiosity drives you to continue reading, and some readers may relate to this idea within their own lives.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen
Another beloved classic, Pride & Prejudice is a world-renowned tale of love. With this one opening line, we learn about society’s expectations of men and women. A character we interact with will be rich and expected to find a wife. This challenge will be fraught with the issues hinted at in the title. The reader is left wondering who this man is, whom he will marry, and what misunderstandings will occur to give the novel its name.
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked," from Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl."
A chaotic and punchy opening line! Ginsberg conveys so much information that demands your attention in just a few words. You wonder who the best minds are, what is causing this madness, and what he means by 'destroyed'. Powerful and visceral words like ‘starving hysterical naked’ grab your attention and bring powerful images to mind. By giving us a clear chaotic picture, Ginsberg is capturing your imagination and practically forcing you to continue.
So what have we learned here?
From looking at the above examples, we know that you need to hook your reader, fuel their curiosity, and give them powerful words or images to work with.
How To Write Your First Chapter
Your story and genre will affect what you want to achieve with your first chapter as with everything else. However, you want to continue this trend of drawing your reader in and laying your foundations. Typically, laying your foundations will mean introducing your main characters and familiarising the reader with their relationships and world. The first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone lets us experience the Dursleys and their attitude towards the magical world, along with a brief glimpse at crucial characters such as Dumbledore, Hagrid, and McGonagall. The critical event that kicks things off is Harry being left at the Dursleys' doorstep, which occurs at the end of the chapter.
A Note on Prologues
Prologues are not technically counted as first chapters, but they are the first thing a reader will read if an author chooses to use one. Prologues are connected to the story but are not the narrative’s start. They will often be set in the same world but at a different time or from another character’s perspective. While Eragon by Christopher Paolini is told from Eragon’s perspective, the prologue tells the story of Durza capturing Arya, which occurs after the story starts miles away from Carvahall. This throws the reader into an action-packed situation that gives some insight into the world and the event that changes Eragon’s life. Starting with an action scene or dialogue, whether in the prologue or first chapter, are great ways to draw the reader in.
Why Would Someone Not Like A Beginning?
As with every piece of art, openings are subjective - whether something is good or bad depends on the individual. There are many reasons why a reader could put down a piece before the beginning ends. Some of these reasons include but are not limited to:
Tense of the narrative
Poor editing and proofreading
Not their preferred genre or style
Should you hang your head in despair? No! You have little control over whether someone will read your work, but you can have fun and make the best first impression you can. The more thought and heart you put into your story, the more likely your readers will want to hear more of your tale. There is so little you can control when it comes to getting people to read your work - but you can control how your story is told.
What do you think about beginnings? Do you prefer writing them to endings? How do you feel about prologues? Let us know!