Call me Ishmael.
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
You better not never tell anybody but God.
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.
It all begins with a simple sentence. Those few essential words that set the tone and compel the audience to read on. Every so often, writers are struck with a flash of brilliance at the start of a story and it carries them straight through to the end. This may have been the case with the famous lines above (see below if you’re wondering where these first sentences appeared) but oftentimes, it’s a labor of love to get the ball rolling.
If you’re not lucky enough to be hit with an instant vision for the first statement of your story, you may simply choose to begin anywhere, with a compelling scene that becomes the motivating force for the entire work. In this way, you have the freedom to work forward and backward, fitting the pieces together and filling in the blanks as you go.
How to begin depends entirely on your writing process and the project itself. Some authors need that first sentence to move on with the work; they may take months revising it to perfection before the rest of the story can flow. Others dive right in without bothering to check how temperate the waters may be. Either way, there is no right and wrong to the process…it’s simply a matter of practice to find out how you work best.
Regardless, you owe it to yourself to plan ahead with a loose plot outline before you actually sit down to execute. (See “How do I Organize My Thoughts into a Story“ for tips.) This way, you’ll be more likely to stay focused, avoiding the chance to slip into a tangent that you may regret later. Plus, if you ever find yourself at a loss for what happens next, you can always return to your original intentions to keep the momentum going.
A common problem that many writers face is starting their stories too early. It’s easy to let your passion for the work take over and, in the thick of creative discovery, give the reader too many details. An outline will help you visualize the big picture in a way that allows you to step back and ensure that ever scene, every chapter has an important purpose.
In order to firmly establish your characters stories in your mind, you may want to take some time on your own to write about what happened to them before the story begins. Write a few pages about your protagonist’s childhood. Explore that fateful day when the supporting character met the protagonist. You can even detail some unrelated events that have happened around town to further visualize your setting. This technique may help you find the actual moment when the story begins for your characters, and therefore, your reader.
Are you ready to take the plunge? Here is a proven exercise that has helped many writers start a solid foundation from which to build a great read.
1. Let your ideas flow: Take a few weeks and jot down focused, yet informal, insights on your story idea, including
characters, setting and themes.
2. Observe and take note: Once you’ve established the basics, look for related inspirations in your own life – read the paper, watch TV or people watch at the park, noting any actions or dialogue that may be appropriate for your story.
3. Try the “what if?” factor: Many stories start out with a “what if?” idea (i.e. Moby Dick’s premise: What if a ships captain was obsessed with a big white whale?). Try some what if statements yourself to help you find your starting point
4. Go for it. What are you waiting for? Get started!
Famous first sentence authors & novels:
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage