Overcoming Fear of Beginnings, My Love Story with First Lines By Katherine Nichols
If I don’t post this blog before he breaks down my door, no one will ever know the truth.
John Steinbeck once shared that writing first lines of a novel often filled him with fear. Tess Gerritsen admitted that sometimes when she sits down to start a novel, she forgets how.
I, however, am consumed with first lines. Books, memoirs, short stories, newspaper articles—you get the point. And I’m obsessed with writing them. A good opening can set the tone, capture the narrator’s voice, and create expectations. Writing a great opening fills me with irrational joy and understandable trepidation. What if my brilliant beginning is the best part of my work?
This fear explains all the scraps of paper with scribbled attempts at creating the world’s best start to a novel. Inspiration for these snippets of genius usually comes to me seconds before I fall asleep or when I’m stuck in traffic. Sometimes I capture them; often they elude me. I’m convinced the most stellar ones, the ones that would propel me to the top of the best seller list, disappear into some dark corner of my mind.
Please turn your attention to the first line of this blog. I doubt if any of you felt the need to call 911 to save me from impending peril. But it’s a pretty good opener. It establishes a frantic tone delivered in a desperate voice. It sets the pace for the story or novel or possibly a memoir if you’ve led a more interesting life than I have.
Although engaging, it could be overly ambitious. Where does the writer go from here? Out the window? To the emergency room? If she wants to keep her readers’ interest, she better deliver. She can propel her story forward or slow down and give some background material. And what is the truth that needs to be revealed? Should the author hint at it or make her readers wait? And if it’s so important, why is she sticking it in a blog?
But I don’t want to talk about what comes after the first line because that part of writing is so much harder. I want to play with opening lines and hopefully inspire you with their possibilities.
Both established and aspiring authors struggle with them. In my research, I came across an article insisting your first few lines must be vivid, surprising, funny, true, and clear. They should capture or hint at the entirety of the story. And I thought really? How in the name of all that’s holy can an opening line or paragraph or even chapter do all those things? So, I went to the real experts, authors.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…”
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
“Call me Ismael.”
I concluded we can’t all be du Maurier or Dickens or Austin or Melville.
Does this mean we should work and rework until we have the perfect beginning, one that doesn’t merely engage the reader; it enthralls them? Yes, we should because we want our work to be as perfect as possible. But if we fail to come up with this elusive creature, do we succumb to despair and give up on our dream?
No, we do not. We’re not only writers; we’re readers. Unlike the person who stops after the first sentence or only glances at the back cover and walks away from the bookstore empty handed, we understand there is more to a book than its beginning. Rather than rush to conclusions, we linger over a prospective purchase. Yes, we read the first paragraph, but we skim the next few pages and carefully flip through the chapters stopping at random passages to get a feeling for the tone and setting. We consider the point of view and dialogue.
If there’s a dog (or cat or ferret or parakeet) in the book, I google “does the dog die.” If the animal makes it to the end, I check out a few reviews, keeping in mind how subjective they are and how often I disagree with them. Sometimes, I return to the first page and reread it to speculate on whether it will deliver what it promises. Then I take a leap of faith and buy the book, or not.
Warning: Shameless Promotion. Feel free to skip to the first line matchup.
Because I love beginnings so much, I want to share a few of mine with you.
According to family legend, my mother was conceived in a van almost immediately after Janis Joplin’s iconic performance of “Piece of My Heart.”
One minute I was standing in the produce department comparing the prices of seasonal fruit. The next I was sitting in the middle of the cereal aisle surrounded by boxes of honey and oat GoldieOs, rolling blueberries, and uniformed personnel.
The Sometime Sister
My mother has always operated in her own time zone.
The Substitute Sister
Four years had passed since my ex-fiancé murdered his wife, who also happened to be my sister. Families can be complicated.
After spending most of the morning studying photos on the whiteboard in my office, I was no closer to understanding how the little old woman, lying on the floor with her head resting on a gigantic wheel of Gouda cheese, had become a criminal.
As you can see, I practice what I preach. I worked hard to get my beginnings as polished and engaging as possible without getting paralyzed by the search for perfection.
If you want to dabble a little more with first lines, read each of the following. Ask yourself if you would want to keep reading. Then see if you can match these first lines with their novels. Come back and check the comments for answers.
1. When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.
2. In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr. Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news in The Times.
3. There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.
4. My suffering left me sad and gloomy.
5. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
6. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
7. It was a pleasure to burn.
8. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
9. All this happened, more or less.
10. The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
a. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
b. Slaughter-House Five, Kurt Vonnegut
c. Secret History, Donna Tart
d. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
e. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
f. Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
g. 1984, George Orwell
h. And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie
i. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
j. Life of Pi, Yaan Martel