Many Beginnings

Many writers start from a brilliant opening line – an inspiration to craft an entire story from a dazzling line of prose. Other writers use the opening line as a placeholder, knowing they will revise or replace it when they finish telling the story.

Although I prefer the second approach, there is no wrong or right way to write an opening line – truly, deciding must be the best and worst of times for a storyteller.

Different approaches by different authors have rewarded us with some of the most compelling, memorable sentences in human culture:

  • 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.
  • Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

 

Three-deity Mandala of the Auspicious Beginning from www.LOC.gov

 

A great opening line is essentially without definition. As with US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, each of us knows a great opening line when we see it. However, I believe every one contains this essential element:

A great opening line means more after you’ve read the story than when you first read it.

Many writers get so caught up in their opening lines that they forget every story has more than one opening line. Every chapter and every scene in your story has an opening line (and, not to put too fine a point on it, a closing line) that deserves the same level of attention and care as the opening line of the first scene of the first chapter.

Consider your favorite books – the books you care about as old friends, the ones you return to with eager anticipation each time you pick them off your shelves. Think about why you value the experience of reading the story. Then read the opening line. I’ll bet you discover more meaning in it than you thought was there the first time you read the book.

And then consider your opening lines – not just the first one, but every single one in your story. If they don’t mean more to a new reader at the end of the scene, chapter, or book, revising them so they do is a relatively painless strategy to increase the resonance – the conscious and more important unconscious impact – of your writing and your story.

 

 

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