You’ve heard it said, Begin with action. Your job is to grab readers’ attention, and what better way than to craft a tense, action-packed scene? The flaw in that theory, though, is that we haven’t been introduced to the story’s hero, much less made to care about the jeopardy he’s in. Action is great, but people are interested in people.
“Too many authors begin with, ‘Holy crap! Someone’s driving fast! And bullets! And there’s a robot-dragon chasing them! LAVA ERUPTION. And nano-bees! Aren’t you tense yet?’ …Not so much, no. Because I have no reason yet to care. Without depth of character and without context, an action scene is ultimately shallow and that’s how they often feel when leading off the first chapter.”
Only when people care about people are they riveted to the action that threatens or promotes them in some way. So get your readers to care and do it quickly. Give us an individual, preferably someone who’s in short supply on our lists of Who’s Who.
Here’s how Günther Grass in his novel The Tin Drum introduces Oskar Matzerath—a child, seemingly conscious from birth, who decides he doesn’t want to deal with the adult world: “Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital.” I think you’ll agree, it’s a great opening line.
ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE
“I like that Agnes Cleats,” Macon Mann said to his friend Ingrid Bartholomew.
How many readers would continue reading beyond that first line? The author didn’t understand the roles that character introductions play in fiction. Instead of intriguing the reader, she forced three names on us with all the appeal of medicine we must swallow before getting on with the story.
If you begin your story with a character(s), what will seize our interest? Is the character in a peculiar state? Is the character peculiar? Think of what you know about him and your story, then think about us, your readers. What will make us happy or sad, frightened, curious… entertained? Now grab us, as the following examples do.
I was born upside down, the umbilical cord looped twice around my neck. —Poppies by Ulrica Hume
Once upon a time two or three weeks ago, a rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man decided to record for posterity, exactly as it happened, word by word and step by step, the story of another man for indeed what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal, a somewhat paranoiac fellow unmarried, unattached, and quite irresponsible, who had decided to lock himself in a room a furnished room with a private bath, cooking facilities, a bed, a table, and at least one chair, in New York City, for a year 365 days to be precise, to write the story of another person—a shy young man about of 19 years old—who, after the war the Second World War, had come to America the land of opportunities from France under the sponsorship of his uncle—a journalist, fluent in five languages—who himself had come to America from Europe Poland it seems, though this was not clearly established sometime during the war after a series of rather gruesome adventures, and who, at the end of the war, wrote to the father his cousin by marriage of the young man whom he considered as a nephew, curious to know if he the father and his family had survived the German occupation, and indeed was deeply saddened to learn, in a letter from the young man—a long and touching letter written in English, not by the young man, however, who did not know a damn word of English, but by a good friend of his who had studied English in school—that his parents both his father and mother and his two sisters one older and the other younger than he had been deported they were Jewish to a German concentration camp Auschwitz probably and never returned, no doubt having been exterminated deliberately X * X * X * X, and that, therefore, the young man who was now an orphan, a displaced person, who, during the war, had managed to escape deportation by working very hard on a farm in Southern France, would be happy and grateful to be given the opportunity to come to America that great country he had heard so much about and yet knew so little about to start a new life, possibly go to school, learn a trade, and become a good, loyal citizen. —Double or Nothing by Raymond Federman
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. —The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis
When Dick Gibson was a little boy he was not Dick Gibson. —The Dick Gibson Show by Stanley Elkin
He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. —Orlando by Virginia Woolf
What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings? —Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things by Gilbert Sorrentino
He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. —Scaramouche by Raphael Sabatini
The first-person narrator giving a judgment about him or herself often possesses a skewed perspective, one that makes for a compelling voice.
I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders. —Dark Places: A Novelby Gillian Flynn
I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. —Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am! But why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of acute hearing. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then am I mad? Hearken! And above how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story. —The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me. —The Tin Drum by GŸnter Grass
If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog. —Herzog by Saul Bellow
In a sense, I am Jacob Horner. —The End of the Road by John Barth
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. —Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily. I’d know her head anywhere. And what’s inside it. I think of that too: her mind. Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy? The question I’ve asked most often during our marriage, if not out loud, if not to the person who could answer. —Gone Girl: A Novel by Gillian Fly
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. —The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled. — I, Claudius by Robert Graves
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. —The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl’s underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child. But most of all, lover of my harmless and sanguine self. —Second Skin by John Hawkes
One of the most famous and original novels of modern times, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye begins with a protestation that the reader need not expect “David Copperfield kind of crap.”
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
In this opening, Holden is drawing up his contract with the reader—what he will do and what he won’t do. The terms of that contract would have been different had the key sentence read simply, “all that kind of crap.” The Dickensian allusion—“David Copperfield kind of crap”—brings another work of literature into play. It enlarges the perspective, and complicates it. And makes it, despite Holden’s disavowal, intensely literary.
I always suffer from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one. —John Steinbeck
…sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going. I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true sentence I had written. —Earnest Hemmingway
As a writer, I attach an inordinate, nearly insane level of importance to that first sentence and feel that if it’s not right, the whole book will fail. As a scholar I don’t think that’s actually true. But as a writer, I believe it. It’s the literary equivalent of taking three practice swings, and no more than three practice swings, every time I step up to the plate. —Steven Hayward
The difficulty is the first page of the novel; afterwards one is pushed by an energy in what one has already written. —Alain Robbe-Grillet