When I saw this in a bio of Robbins broadcast this weekend (and I am paraphrasing since I don't have access to the original), I couldn't help but thing of how Thackeray and other novelists of his time would begin chapters with spoilers like "In Which Miss Sharp and Miss Sedley Prepare to Open the Campaign." I've written in the past about how titles and subtitles (including "In which" beginnings) can launch writers into their drafts. It's also possible to construct first sentences (for books, chapters, and scenes) that can get the juices flowing.
Many writers freeze when the get to first sentences because there is so much pressure to set the scene, create a great hook, and introduce the character perfectly. If such a sentence comes to you, fine. If not, that means you're human. Get to work putting the story down and worry about the perfect opening sentence when you are rewriting you work. Here are five approaches:
- Call me Ishmael. (Moby-Dick) - Write down something the character says. If you can get a character talking, he or she is likely to keep talking for a full scene. Take advantage of that.
- 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) - Start with a premise, your thesis (if you know it). Most of us had to do this is school so the words that follow, the proofs, should come easily. This approach works well if you have something to say.
- Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. (The Trial) - Begin with the protagonist's problem. Then move on to what it means to him or her. What might be done to solve it.
- This is the saddest story I have ever heard. (The Good Soldier) - Make a promise to the reader. Make it as big as you dare. And then try to fulfill it.
- It was a pleasure to burn. (Fahrenheit 451) - Start with a sentence that is charged with emotion. If you have a visceral reaction to it, you can ride that emotion through the sentences that follow it. Once you establish an emotion, you can turn it, for even more fun.
If all of these leave you scratching your head, try answering these versions of the journalists' questions.
- When and where does the scene take place?
- Who is this scene about?
- What happened to him or her?
- How did it happen?
- Why should I (the reader) care?
Are you bedeviled about how to begin? How do you construct your opening sentences?