Once I read a novel that began with bullets flying in the first paragraph. For a long time I judged my beginnings by that one. Those bullets lingered in the back of my mind, whispering that my beginnings were lame stuff in comparison.
Most writers understand that if you can’t “hook” the reader in the first page or two you won’t make the sale. Flying bullets can create an interesting “hook,” in the sense that pretty packaging sells ordinary products. But an effective beginning has another purpose.
Beginnings set tone and theme. Consider Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” We learn something important about God. More prosaically, we now know what the first chapter is about. And we get the sense that Genesis as a whole is a book about beginnings. We learn a lot in ten words.
Consider the first paragraph of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen: “For the first fifteen years of our lives, Danny and I lived within five blocks of each other and neither of us knew of the other’s existence.”
The protagonist doesn’t lay eyes on Danny until eight pages later. Clearly, though, from that first sentence we understand that the relationship between the two young men is the subject of this book. The reader is also introduced in seed form to the religious divides between Jewish sects in New York City during the Depression. The boys were members of different sects, and this serves as the tension and conflict of the story. All found in kernel form in one sentence.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird seems to ramble in the opening, but not really. Consider:
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about the injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
Harper Lee doesn’t begin with an action scene. She begins with clues. Something bad happened years ago—what was it? And it must be a complex story if they are still discussing the cause. We get an additional clue with the mention of Boo Radley, a persistent but largely invisible character who proves to be the title character, the “mockingbird.”
Entice your reader. Put us into your protagonist’s viewpoint with a problem or tension or enough clues to realize that there’s a story here—and do all that in the first page or two. If your story isn’t suspense, you may need no bullets. My last example is from a writer who constructs slow, deep beginnings.
Charles Martin, winner of the 2017 Christy Award for Long Way Gone, opens an earlier novel, A Life Intercepted, with a prologue:
He sat on the floor, towel around his neck, drenched in his own sweat, eyes trained on the screen. Football in one hand, a half-eaten banana in the other, a bottle of Gatorade in his lap. She sat next to him. Jeans. Older sweatshirt. Legs crossed. Remote in one hand, laser pointer in the other. Staring through reading glasses. Her hair had turned. Once deep mahogany, now snow gray. The turn was not unexpected; the timing was. Life had amplified genetics. In her early thirties, she was technically old enough to be his mom, but the last third of those years had not been kind.
Who is this kid, and who is the woman? We aren’t told yet—but we soon discover that she knows an incredible amount about football, and she’s teaching him by going over tapes of some other football player—an amazing one, by the sound of it. Finally we get to some current events:
“It’s all over the news—he’s getting out tomorrow.”
She nodded and stared toward the garden.
He pressed her. “You made any plans?”
She shook her head.
“He know you’re here?”
Who is he? Is it the star football player? What is the relationship here—and where is he getting out from? Prison? The prologue establishes hints of the Problem—the Story. It’s effective, though low-key, because we learn enough about these folks to care.
Oh, and by the way, I’m not a football fan, yet somehow I was “hooked.”
Connect with Lynne online at https://www.lynnetagawa.com/.