The first sentence of your fiction is the most important one you’ll ever write (and by extension, the first paragraph). It makes the process of beginning a story unbearable for some. Almost impossible for others. The blank white space stares impassively from your screen and taunts you with its potential. Some writers will run screaming (for coffee). I just start writing… well, likely with a coffee nearby.
Why am I immune to the pressures of the first line and by extension, the first paragraph? I’m not. I stress about it, I worry about it, but to me, the first sentence is unable to be written until I’ve got about half of my project completed. A catch-22 for sure, but I do my best not to think about it. Starting a story has never been a problem, it’s always been the finish of it – but that’s another blog post and not a topic I feel ready to talk about until I have a finished product. Back to my point; how do I write my first sentence after I have the rest of my work written down? I have to start with the first sentence, right?
In my current book I’d written three paragraphs to get to my first sentence. Three paragraphs and an extra sentence, to be precise. It was painful, but I removed three paragraphs (and a sentence) of prose that I loved, that I’d already cleaned up and made sound ‘just right’, that had survived fifteen edits. Fifteen. It was edit number sixteen of the first chapter when I finally found my first sentence. There it was, looking at me from beneath all this lovely prose, showing me where my story really began. Instead of waxing lyrical about shadows of buildings and raindrops scattering pedestrians, about cars like beetles scurrying home, I found the place where my story really began. With my protagonist sitting in a dark car, looking at the raindrops on the windshield, and freaking out about what he was about to do.
Did I need all that beautiful scenery at the start? Not with this particular project. It’s not literary, yet it had a literary beginning. It was false advertising; I was potentially turning off the people interested in reading the book with a rhythm that didn’t match the rest of the novel, and turning off the people who read the first three paragraphs, liked it, and would then be surprised by the rest. The ‘voice’ of the book had changed from something slow, deep and meaningful to something light and faster paced. The change was too dramatic, but it took me fifteen edits to be brave enough to fix it.
So now I have a first line and a first paragraph that I believe suits the book. There’s a hook in there, too. In a single sentence, I show that it’s night-time, that it’s raining, and that my main character is on the precipice of an adventure. I didn’t plan it that way, yet I did. It just took me a few rounds to see it.
Here are some interesting articles I’ve read about writing paragraphs and opening lines
- Write a Good Paragraph in Four Parts (wordplaywritersforum.com)
- First sentences: Introduction (growupnovelist.com)
- A First Sentence (thelocktessmonster.wordpress.com)