Begin at the beginning… or maybe in the middle
Published 6:18 pm Friday, July 9, 2021
It is a truth universally acknowledged… that any good story ought to have a good opening too.
Did the first half of that sentence sound familiar? That’s because I borrowed it from the opening of Jane Austen’s famous novel, Pride and Prejudice. The original sentence, of course, goes “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Pride and Prejudice is a pretty memorable romance story, with plenty of TV and film adaptations over the years. But that opening sentence is just as memorable and often quoted (or easily parodied, like I did in the opening of this column.)
I’ve been thinking about the beginnings of stories this week. For me, that’s often the hardest part about writing anything: figuring out where and how it should begin. There have been plenty of times I’ve stared up at the ceiling in the office here trying to think of a good lede for a newspaper or magazine article I’m working on. And even when I write fiction for fun, I sometimes struggle to decide on the best way to start a story. It’s usually important to grab the attention of your audience right away.
There are a lot of opening lines to well-known books that are pretty famous themselves, though the quality of how “good” these sentences are vary from book to book.
Some lines are just plain exposition, naming some characters and what they’re doing or just setting the scene. Like the opening to the Harry Potter series, which doesn’t even mention the title character: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
Or the opening line from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
And the opening from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun.”
Some opening lines are really simple. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien opens with “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” And then there’s Moby Dick by Herman Melville: “Call me Ishmael.”
My personal favorites are ones that really catch your attention and make you stop the think “huh, what’s happening?” Like the opening to George Orwell’s 1984: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Thirteen?? If that doesn’t make me want to read the rest to find out why, I don’t know what would!
As I was looking for famous opening lines, I stumbled across a few really interesting ones from books I’ve never read before. But they definitely caught my eye. Like the opening of The Crow Road by Iain Banks: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” Is that literal or a metaphor? I’d have to read more to find out.
One particular opening line made me laugh a lot. I’m sure I’ve read the book when I was a kid, but I didn’t remember it. The opening to C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader begins like this: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
Wow! Sorry to everyone out there who shares a name in common with that guy.
Of course, there’s more to the beginning of a story than just the opening line. The whole opening scene ought to be pretty good too, and there is a variety of ways you can kickstart the plot. Most people start with the beginning itself, setting up who the main character is and what the story is going to be focused on.
But you have other options too, such as starting “in media res” which basically means you throw your audience right smack dab into the middle of the plot, and then you fill in the blanks along the way. Opening with a “flashforward” is a similar method some people like to use. (Though I personally think flashforwards ruin the surprise what’s to come in a story. If you open with your characters about to jump out of a plane and then jump back 12 hours in time, the audience is just going to spend the whole time wondering “when do we get back to the plane?”)
If you take a moment to think about it, you can probably come up with your own examples of your favorite opening lines and opening moments to books, film, and TV shows. One of my personal favorites is from the series “Yu Yu Hakusho.” As the camera focuses on the main character, the narrator opens with “And so it begins. This boy’s name is Yusuke. He’s 14 years old, and is supposed to be the hero of this story. But oddly enough… he’s dead.”
Imagine killing off your main character in the first minute of the show!
I don’t think I could do that for any story I’d want to write, even if it does make things a lot more interesting.
If you’re thinking of writing a story, don’t feel intimidated by the task of writing that opening line. You’ve got plenty of ways to get started. And, hey, if you’re feeling indecisive, you can always do something similar to how Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”
Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7206.