Writing Good First Words To A Story

There are all sorts of ways to start a story. They all have one thing in common; the reader is in the story immediately. Those first few sentences must surround the reader with emotions, place them in the middle of a scene, or be watching something so intense, they can not turn away. Those words must arrest, intrigue, and grab the attention of the reader.

Bear in mind, what grabs one reader may not grab another.

Some writers like to start a story with dialogue. It can be likened to sitting at a restaurant and listening to a conversation at the next table. You forget about what the person with you is talking about and you try to hear past your friend to catch the “real” story that interest you.

Also, think about the first few notes or bars in a song. If those notes are not well thought out, the audience will soon tune out. My favorite piece of music is Rhapsody in Blue. The long note of the clarinet almost pulls the listener in and never lets go. Thus once you have captured the reader with a good opening, continue to build on those words.

The words must be natural and true; easy to follow. There can be no deception in them. They must be about the story and the pace of the story. The words must display that you are a writer and adept at your craft. Like the opening notes of a song, they will tell you what the song is about.

Time will not be taken to write the first paragraph of every novel by John Steinbeck, however if you wish to look them up; you will find no better examples.

A bad example often given is “It was a dark and stormy night.” I have read dozens of criticisms of this opening sentence and an equal number defending it. Critics call it an example of something called purple prose. Purple prose is—never mind; it’s just a term made up by literary snobs to keep out the riffraff. To me, (a proud member of the riffraff) it is a good opening.

As an exercise, why not try to improve it.

Deep in one of the far northern forests of Maine, Paul stared into the night from the window of his lonely cabin. “Butch,” he said to his long-haired mutt, “even without the rain and wind, I don’t think I could see the wood pile.”

The bottom line; “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Recently I made a Google search of the best and worst opening lines of novels. What was found was not surprising. Some made both lists.

Interestingly, many of the opening words made little sense or were so veiled in some sort of cryptic meaning little could be gleaned from them. They sounded high-minded—created and structured as if to impress only those with breeding and taste. When you read an opening to a novel and say to yourself, “Wow, this guy can really write!” The writing has lost it’s purpose. The writer has lost his way. The writing is supposed to involve the reader in the story and not the story teller. Anytime the writer becomes bigger than the story, he’s a showoff.

Think about a salesman who approaches you. With a good salesman, you hardly know he’s a salesman. However, that phony transparent back-slapper has you running for the exit.

If good opening words are crafted, make certain those words are relevant to the story; not only in substance but also consistent with the story that follows. Don’t open with kitties when the story is about puppies. Be honest, simple, and direct. Attention should be given to your opening words, not obsession.


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