Grab your reader with a good beginning
Good beginnings matter, whether you write poetry, memoir, novels, or short stories.
A compelling beginning hooks your reader’s attention, including agents and editors, who may hold the key to publishing. Imagine your readers walking around a bookstore and pulling books off the shelf to read the first page or downloading a sample to read online. Would your book capture their interest?
Check your story’s beginning against these three elements of a good beginning. Good stories should:
Raise a question. Create a sense of curiosity to draw readers into your story. At the heart of every good story is a question that must be answered. A protagonist wants something and the reader must read to the end for the answer.
Hint at what’s to come as your story unfolds. A beginning is an opportunity to set a tone and give clues to what’s in store. One of my favorite books and an example of how the author set a tone is “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger.
Surprise the reader. How often are you surprised by the first paragraphs of a book? This book surprised me in the first line:
“The Winter War” by Philip Teir
“The first mistake that Max and Kateriina made that winter — and they would make many mistakes before their divorce — was to deep-freeze their grandchildren’s hamster.”
Check out these examples and see how they meet the criteria of good beginning.
“The Haunting of Hill House” is a ghost story by Shirley Jackson, who also wrote, “The Lottery.”
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
“The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger. This classic starts out giving you an original voice and more.
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parent were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all–I’m not saying that–but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.
“Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White.
“”Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”
“The Rosie Project” by Graeme Simsion – A funny novel about a man with Asperger’s syndrome who is looking for a wife starts out by telling the question the story will answer.
“I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem. As with so many scientific breakthroughs, the answer was obvious in retrospect. But had it not been for a series of unscheduled events, it is unlikely I would have discovered it. The sequence was initiated by Gene’s insisting I give a lecture on Asperger’s syndrome that he had previously agreed to deliver himself. The timing was extremely annoying. The preparation could be time-shared with lunch consumption, but on the designated evening I had scheduled ninety-four minutes to clean my bathroom. I was faced with a choice of three options, none of them satisfactory.”
Do you have favorite books that have grabbed you from the start? Share the titles in the comments below or share the beginning of your work in progress.
These are great examples. Perfect timing for me, too, since I’m revising my opening paragraphs now.
Of course, given my brain, I can’t recall any specific examples of great opening lines, but I do know that Stephen King always manages to suck me right into the story.