WHERE TO BEGIN?

I’ve written before on the subject of a story’s first line, or a novel’s first paragraph, and starting a story—pulp fiction style—with a “bang,” but there’s really no way to overstate both the importance of the first line or first paragraph of any piece of writing, fiction or non-fiction, and the infinite variety of approaches that makes every author and every piece of work unique.

Rather than repeat that, yes, the first sentence of a short story of first paragraph of a novel is, y’know… important, this time let’s look at a few other opinions that I’ve copied out into my ever-expanding Word file Random Writing Quotes and Examples.docx, starting with Joan Didion (from The Paris Review interview “The Art of Fiction No. 71”):

What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first  two  sentences, your options are all gone.

Well, that sounds frightening. But then so does most of the writing advice out there, right? I try really hard not be one of those many voices that emphasize how hard this is, and how there’s no money in it, and the first advice to any aspiring author is that you should stop aspiring to be an author, so let’s see if we can get some wisdom out of that, and a smidge of positivity.

First of all, until the story or novel is actually printed and out there for sale you aren’t “stuck with” anything. You can rewrite that first sentence right up until the last moment. You can get a better idea at any time during the writing process, decide you need to start earlier in the story or later in the story or from a different point of view… There are all sorts of reasons you might revisit the first sentence (or paragraph), and if I have any rules at all, a big one is: Always give yourself the freedom to have a better idea. Even if that means going back and rewriting the first sentence or the first hundred sentences—or any other sentences. Your options are only gone once it’s published, and, as previously established, it belongs to the ages.

In “What Makes a Great Opening Line?” Allegra Hyde asked:

Is it possible for a sentence to be overly clear—too contextualized? Absolutely. We’ve all read sentences so freighted with detail that narrative momentum comes to a standstill. Just as the thrill  love at first sight  necessitates a degree of mystique, so does a compelling first sentence require certain gaps in information. Something has to remain unanswered, unexplained, unresolved—because therein lies the special chemistry between clarity and curiosity. We need to know enough to wonder more.

Here I stand united with Allegra Hyde.

In “How Not to Open a Short Story” I warned against too many ideas in a sentence—especially the first sentence. Believe it or not, you do not have to “set the scene” for your readers right up front. There is no requirement that they “know” anything other than a story has started. There is never a good reason for anything resembling an info dump, even in the form of a single sentence that exists only to tell your readers what is going to happen, where this is happening, or does anything other than showing something happening. The details—the whole rest of the story or novel—will cover the necessary remaining context. Let your first sentence live, let it play, let it inspire your readers to read on by being, in and of itself, alive.

Edith Wharton picks up from here in “How to Write a Vivid First Line.”

The arrest of attention by a vivid opening should be something more than a trick. It should mean that the narrator has so brooded on this subject that it has become his indeed, so made over and synthesized within him that, as a great draughtsman gives the essentials of a face or landscape in a half-a-dozen strokes, the narrator can “situate” his tale in an opening passage which shall be a clue to all the detail eliminated.

Note the word, “clue.” The first line is not a decision. It’s not, going back to my previous post again, a newspaper lead. The first sentence doesn’t have to tell the whole story, or really any of the story at all. It can set the story’s mood, sample the writing’s tone, establish the author’s voice, showcase the central conflict, introduce the story’s hero or villain, or… what else?

I’m actually asking.

The first sentence or paragraph can do a lot. It can do one, some, or all of the things I just listed, plus or minus whatever else we can think of later.

So what to do then, if you’re reading this after staring at a blank page with an equally blank look on your face? You came here for advice, right? You need me to tell you how to do this!

Easy…

Try stuff and if you find a sentence that resonates with you, that’s the one.

Do that over and over again for the rest of your life, and at some point you might feel you’re pretty good at it, then keep challenging yourself.

In other words, approach writing your first sentence the same way you should approach writing every other sentence, and that is as an ongoing experiment—which is what art is, an ongoing experiment in what it means to be human.

Don’t believe me? How about listening to John Cheever (also from The Paris Review):

Fiction  is  experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction. One never puts down a sentence without the feeling that it has never been put down before in such a way, and that perhaps even the substance of the sentence has never been felt. Every sentence is an innovation.

Good luck with that!

—Philip Athans

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WHERE TO BEGIN?