About two weeks ago I decided to treat myself a little and subscribed to Masterclass. The concept intrigued me and I was really sold once I saw that Margaret Atwood had a course about writing. I’m not done with the course yet but I feel like I have already gotten my money’s worth.
One of the lessons that has stuck with me is the importance of the first page, especially the first sentence and paragraph. For many authors, those first words will be the difference between someone taking your novel home and someone putting it back on the bookstore shelf. First impressions are important, especially for new writers.
The beginning of the story has always been a struggle for me. I have concepts and worlds but figuring out where to start causes me to freeze. This is where I really felt encouragement from Atwood because she talks a lot about how important and common it is to change your book mid-writing, sometimes the true first line and page are not written for 50 pages. And that’s okay.
Another tip was to read the first part of books and authors that I like and try to really consciously think about what you are being told. There are a lot of subconscious assumptions that happen when reading and taking a step back to analyze them a bit can be the difference between developing a good first sentence and a bad first sentence.
Atwood uses some classic literature as examples of good beginnings, such as Moby-Dick, “Call me Ishmael”. Those three words shape our perception of the novel moving forward. We know the narrator survives and we can relate the name to its Biblical foundation, if you know the story of Ishmael then you learn about how the narrator views himself, as a first-born son who was cast out by his father but ended up being blessed by God out in the wilderness.
So, I decided to think about a couple of opening passages that have stuck with me. The first actually comes from the film American Beauty:
My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This is my life. I am 42 years old. In less than a year, I will be dead. Of course, I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I’m already dead.
As these words are spoken we have an aerial view of standard suburbia with matching houses and cars. The first five sentences almost lull is into a sense of security until that last sentence. We now know that someone that many people may be able to relate to died early in his life. The audience is now roped in, who killed Lester Burnham? Additionally, we are given the tone of the story, this isn’t really about Lester’s physical death, it is about the spiritual death he experienced by living this “dream” cookie-cutter, White suburbia life. So, this is also going to be somewhat political and maybe a story of redemption if Lester can revive his spirit… but we know it will be a short lived revival.
I love that beginning. In six sentences you learn so much about what you are in for and have several issues that you want to be resolved. Damn.
The second opening passage comes from the first book of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger. Now, this is my all-time favorite series and I’ve read it multiple times, so clearly I’m biased. But I do love the first passage. In fact, I think things actually starts before the first chapter with the book title and the first section title.
If you know nothing about the story and live in America then you can’t help but have visions of old westerns and tough men like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood when you read that title. Often the “strong, silent type” of men who stick to a very strong code. You are going to expect this story to involve a harsh environment where the strong survive sometimes and people live on the edge of civilization. Two words and the tone is set.
Then, before the story we are given one word alone on a page “Resumption”. King has stated this is the subtitle of the book and, personally, I think it is even more powerful displayed alone like this. One word and we know that this is a new beginning to an old task. There are years and stories behind us, as well as in front of us. And the reader hopes, nay prays, that they hear some of these stories as well. What is being resumed? We don’t know until we turn the page and read the first sentence:
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Ahh… we are in the middle of a chase of sorts. “The man in black” instantly plays upon the established norm of symbolizing evil with the color black. Or at least a rebel of some kind, like Johnny Cash. We know that we are in a desert, which isn’t surprising given the title but still confirms the feeling of the story. With one sentence we can easily see in our mind’s eye a rough, cowboy of a man standing in the middle of nowhere with the sun high in the sky and far in the distance a man in all black fleeing. It seems he fears the gunslinger, or at least we are lead to believe that in the beginning.
Want to know how this chase is resolved? Well, now you want to buy the book. It drags you in and makes you want resolution. We humans hate it when things aren’t wrapped up tidy. And, spoiler alert, King almost never wraps things up for us. We are always left wanting more.
Hopefully, some day, I will find the words to start a novel that have such powerful imagery associated with it.
Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below while I take a Facebook break!
Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Questions: pneiger.sarahah.com or www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”