In the beginning…there’s only the opening sentence to your story, be it novel, short fiction, or even picture book. Your opening sentence is second only to your closing sentence. And a reader will never get to your closing without being invited in by your opening.
The stakes are high, and it is worth spending time to find the elements that create a story beginning that will cause it to come to life.
It’s important right here, at the outset, to suggest you not get hung up on “the perfect” opener, though. You can begin the work with a placeholder – anything, really – and move on to the second sentence. Like the first chapter in a novel, you may re-write it many times before you are ready to send the story out into the world. You might think of it as the “working” first sentence and move along. Get into the world of your story, and then – with the knowledge you gather from the writing itself – you can return to play with the opening later.
Or perhaps you are the kind of writer who needs to set off on the right foot from the beginning, and only from there can you go on. So, you need to put time into thinking up the three elements that need to be in every great opener:
Character – You need some piece or sense of your main character. By “sense,” a feel for this person. (Think of them as “person” as opposed to “character.”) If you were standing next to this person, hearing their voice, aware of the sort of space their body inhabits, what would you be experiencing?
Setting – Again, a sense of place and/or time. Decades ago, if you opened a book, especially a children’s book, you might have been offered the concrete details of a full name for the protagonist as well as the name of a town or a concrete description of place. Now, more often an opener is like the earliest visuals of a movie, to establish tone and atmosphere.
Emotion – This can be such a subtle piece and is often intricately connected with both character and setting. Evoked is what you want here.
For example, in Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, the opening sentence is, “When Loo was twelve years old her father taught her how to shoot a gun.”
In this sentence, Tinti introduces both main characters, a solid choice as this is a story with appeal for both adults and older young adults (“Loo” ages from 12 to 17 in the pages). The subtle “her father” lets the reader know Hawley circles around his daughter and lives in relation to her and makes his choices to this end. It would be a different read if it were, “When Loo was twelve, Samuel Hawley taught her how to…”
Setting? This could be in the past; that is not clear from just the first sentence. But as for place, we know it’s somewhere that can require a certain comfort level with the need to understand how to use a gun and maybe the when-to-use of that, too; in this, it evokes the emotion of being unsettled…there’s the “why” of needing a gun. The reader will want to find out. And will read on.
Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road opens with, “You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer.”
Along with the alliterated Mr. Mortimer, the mind and the man, the inclusion of direct address grabs the reader as a sort of character, too, and the “mind” feels very much to be the setting, which evokes a feeling of claustrophobia…all of which bears out in the reading and exploration of this character.
There’s also often an urge to open a story with a snippet of dialogue. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, is a fine example of this: “‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”
White drills immediately into the full of the setting – morning, breakfast, and we’re right at the table. The directness of his storytelling is always an opportunity to learn. “Fern” is the character with a name, and her parents stand in relation to her. The emotion is instantaneous anxiety by word six: “axe.” Fern is about to learn some ugly life truths. And so the story begins.
Even if you have not waded far into the planning of your story, bringing together these three elements in something of a first sentence – even if you are thinking of it as a “placeholder” – can be useful.
The opener for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, book three of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
Here we have a full name, and although we are not shown the place of setting, we are surely given the time stamp of names like Eustace and Clarence. The use of a full name creates a voice of authority, with a snag of “just the facts.” In spite of that, and because of it – a paradox – the emotion has a child-like small-mindedness at first glance. And at second, it evokes what award-winning children’s author Katherine Paterson says every story should hold: a need for forgiveness. Given that the Chronicles of Narnia are an allegorical look at Christianity, the forgiveness is an interesting and integral piece. Without that word “almost,” the sentence would not be the opener it is.
Even if you have not waded far into the planning of your story, bringing together these three elements in something of a first sentence – even if you are thinking of it as a “placeholder” – can be useful. Likewise, it’s helpful to realize how these elements are working in a sentence you have already penned. You may have set out two of three – say the character and setting – with no evocation yet of emotion. You may use this to look again at language and diction, and draw out some emotional tone, atmosphere, or slant. (Look what a single word – “almost” – can do.)
You may have character and emotion – but they dangle in some space that could stand to be grounded with just a clue to setting.
You may be late dragging in your character, and your atmospheric setting cries out for human inhabitation. Bring ’em on! The main character has to show up for the party.
Need inspiration? Pull a dozen novels off your shelves. Open to the first chapter and take a look. You may have to dissect the sentence, but invariably all three elements will be there, boldly or slipped in, and pulling the reader into good depths.
—Alison Acheson’s most recent book is a memoir, Dance Me to the End: Ten Months and Ten Days With ALS. She is the founder of “The Unschool for Writers” on Substack.