The Originality of a Beginning

guide to literary agentsSome of us spend a countless amount of time thinking about those first few lines.  We are told over and over again, by countless sources, those first words are absolutely essential.  In the 2016 Guide to Literary Agents it is explained that, “Writing a compelling first page is very difficult.  It’s a balancing act of action, description, and dialogue, and somehow – no matter what it is you are writing about – you’ve got to make it interesting and employ a unique voice” (p. 42).

While the above example is talking about the first page, others talk about the first sentence or sentences.  This article, 7 Keys to Write the Perfect First Line of a Novel, written by Joe Bunting, offers a bunch of famous beginnings you can sort through.  You’ll see all the usual suspects – Melville, Dickens, Rowling, Tolkien, and a few unexpected ones.

Nice Intro.jpgWhat this article offers, and the book I listed above allude to, is the idea that you need to find a unique twist to somehow blow the readers mind to pieces.  The underlying concept is that you must be original.

I don’t know if I agree with this sentiment of originality.  Not entirely.

When I think of beginnings I think of one I say almost everyday to my son, “Once upon a time.”  When you hear those words, what do you think of?  I think of magic beans, talking animals, witches, heroes, and princesses.  For many of us, those stories are the first stories we ever hear.  They are the building blocks of our own lexicon of stories and mythology.  It is stamped into our brains.  Hardwired.  When we see that line, it opens a door.  A door encouraging us to believe in the unbelievable, to dream, to hope, and to imagine.

once upon a time.jpgIs it any surprise when George Lucas penned, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” it became such a classic line?  When you see that line (assuming you are familiar with Star Wars) you think of Jedi, lightsabers, The Force, and a host of other Star Wars related concepts.  But at the core of, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…,” is, “Once upon a time.”  His first line tapped into the power of those countless childhood stories, and he wielded it wisely.

For me, when I saw that line for the first time I was a just a kid.  My dad said, “You’ll love these movies Corey.”  I shoved the tape into a VCR, smashed the tracking button until the image was clear, and carefully read the scrolling prompt.  That first line hooked me.  It threw the door open to imagination.

This door became harder to open the older I got.

The door became harder to open because the more I learned about writing, the more rules were shoved down my throat.  Teachers, instructors, and experts, tell us, “No, no, no, not like that – like this!” or, “It’s a good first line, but it seems pretty similar to [insert story].”

portal.jpgIn the struggle for originality, many authors stray from one of the core concepts of storytelling.  This concept is that the line should work to transport someone into your world.  It’s a cue, overt or covert, that opens the forgotten door and encourages them to once again – believe in the unbelievable.  It doesn’t have to be some crazy twist of phrase.  It doesn’t have to be packed with hidden metaphors and symbolism.  It can be, but it doesn’t HAVE to be.

I would encourage you to look at children’s books for inspiration.  This article, 100 Best Opening Lines From Children’s Books, is a great compilation of those works.  Despite the primary audience of these books being children, the opening lines have great impact.

They have great impact because all of us were children at one point.  It is a universal concept uniting each and everyone one of us.  All of us, at some point in time, dared to believe in the unbelievable.  We didn’t care how crazy it seemed.

For me, I spent hours of my childhood trying to use The Force to move things around in my room.  I believed, beyond reason, if I just tried hard enough, it might just happen.  I could be a Jedi.  I just had to believe.

It never happened for me.  I never did move something with my mind.  And here I am now with a child of my own.  Despite my childhood being long gone, sometimes, when no one is looking, I still try to move things with my mind.  I part of me still believes.

That’s the power of a story.  That’s the power of a beginning.  Don’t stress originality, tell your story.  If the story is yours, the beginning will be too.

That’s it for today!  Do you have a story from your childhood that impacts you to this day?  Do you have an opening line that really rocked your socks off?  I’d love to hear about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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25 responses

  1. Excellent advice and point. While I’m sure many of these “experts” do know much about writing, as far as I’m concerned one should open a story how they want or it is told to them.

    People worry too much about rules (likely more people who aspire to be authors) and don’t trust enough in themselves in my opinion. Let the words flow, however they come.

    Plus if you really don’t love it that much, oh the power of editing later. 😉

    Wonderful read and I strongly agree, every time I hear “Once Upon A Time”, or “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…” My imagination ignites and I feel infinite possibilities!

    Thank you for sharing and have an amazing day.

    Cheers! ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you got something from my ranting and appreciate you swinging in – as always.

      I agree with you, the rules have a place, but when you create, you should tap into all of your own tools and personal experiences. When we were kids our brains were sponges, and those stories were easily built into us. It’s crazy to against it.

      Good luck with you own stories! I’ll be swinging by at some point to check in on your work.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I couldn’t agree more. We should of course apply rules in certain facets but ultimately, we should let our imaginations run free. I love reading your posts. They are informative and creative.

        I also appreciate how you and the posts you create (Comments included) engage and open real conversation. Discussion is wonderful.

        Keep up the awesome posts.

        Cheers! ^_^

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks again for another superb article! Really enjoying these a lot.

    It’s serendipitous timing for an article on beginnings; I’m putting the prologue up for my next book tonight! Spent a while thinking more about styles and have chosen a less erm… stratified structure for the next. So far I’ve got character grids, a general story layout with loads of side paths and a story arc for pretty much everyone. Loads more characters than my last but likely less fleshing out instead with a lot more focus on a main character. Bit of a departure and slightly less chaotic(!), but the wife has given it the thumbs up so I’m off again; albeit a tad more organised than usual!

    I’ve been dropping little anecdotes into my stories of childhood memories of my wife and her siblings, something for them to see in black and white. It’s a really nice thing to do and I’ll carry it on. I’d like something to stand for longer than their memories, something their kids can read one day (if I ever get good enough at this!)

    Keep up the great blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Congratulations on meeting another milestone with the prologue! That’s very exciting. It sounds like you have a great plan-of-attack in place as you move forward.

      I love that you are snagging those memories and using them.

      I commented on another blog the other day and mentioned 5th and 6th century monks. It seems irrelevant, but these guys snagged every piece of written literature they could and meticulously transcribed them, making copies in the only way they could. If it wasn’t for them taking the time to save those stories, much of the literature we know and love (The Bible could be argued to be among these) survived those turbulent times.

      In the same way, you are saving your own family’s stories. Preserving them for generations. Even if your book doesn’t become a critically acclaimed best seller (I hope it does), generations from now someone in your family will pick it up, look at it, and from the great beyond you will speak to them. It’s a powerful and exciting concept in my opinion.

      Best of luck moving forward and thanks for swinging in today!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Two movies spring to mind for me. Labyrinth where Sarah is acting out the book and forgets the vital line ‘You have no power over me’, and Fight Club ‘People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden’. Both suck me in every time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great examples from two movies I enjoy. Chuck Palahniuk’s book, Fight Club, is a little dark and satirical for my taste – but is still well written and worth reading. The film adaption is brilliant. Thanks for pointing these out and swinging by today.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. First lines are hard. I’ve heard many people say if they aren’t hooked, they will put the book down. Puts a lot of pressure on you!

    One of mine is, “Today is, without a doubt, the worst day of my life.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nice first line, thanks for sharing it. I believe in first lines, I understand their importance, but I never put a book down after the first line. For me, I go into books with a positive attitude (unless it’s for work, then I’m obviously a little more critical – but still optomistic). Reading for pleasure though, I will always give a book a fair shake and rarely will stop reading entirely. Unless the book is affecting me in a seriously negative (emotional) way.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for sharing this. Never really gave deep thought to a good beginning, for I rely on my instinct. Shall give it a try. As expected from your posts, learnt something useful today. Keep blogging! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I totally agree with this. A good story brings you into the authors world and lets you get lost there. For me the first line sets the mood, it often encompasses your senses…
    As for books I read when I was a kid, god I read so many. Some of the ones I won’t forget though were classics like ‘where the red fern grows’ (if you haven’t read this, you simply must!), and ‘treasure island’. Each one was a wonderful unforgettable adventure! I’m quite partial to the opening line of ‘a tale of two cities’ too, it is really wonderfully poetic and gives a feeling for the whole time and place…

    Meno

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love all the examples you provided, Treasure Island in particular. One of my younger characters from my book Wastelander refers to that book often as he navigates the wastes.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing this. And as always, thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ha! I forgot how much I loved that commercial. And, yeah, the Jedi thing hasn’t panned out for me yet either.

    Meanwhile , I agree that story trumps opening lines that try too hard. Some opening lines stick with me–like the one from Rebecca–but, as a reader, I don’t notice most of them. The book blurb is much more likely to win me over and entice me to buy. The first line won’t be a deal breaker.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like how you said it hasn’t panned out for you – yet. Me either, yet.

      I sort of understand, from an agents perspective, why those first pages and lines matter – they likely reflect the whole of the work. But I hate to see aspiring writers toss stories in the trashcan of broken dreams because they fear the intro is too weak.

      I also agree with you on the book blurb. I read blurb, glance at the first page, then I flip to the last page and just get it out of the way. Okay…maybe not the last page.

      Speaking of reading, I will snag a copy of The Horned Gate from you. I did a blog post back on Indie Pride Day, here, and am still doing my best to spread the love around. I’ll add you to the list and link your book.

      Thanks a ton for reading and leaving some awesome comments.

      Like

  8. First, ever day I try to move something with my mind, go Super Saiyan, and (if I could only do one) execute the Shadow Clone Jutsu. I do this every day, and as soon as I figure those out, I’ll be unstoppable.

    As for opening lines. I think a great opening line helps. The most memorable one I have is, “The Wheel of Time turns…” from Robert Jordan. That opening is, in my opinion, the fantasy version of “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” But outside of that, most Fantasy books don’t have such a hook. I’d be interested to see what people say. Sure, “In a whole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” But honestly, how many opening lines can you name? Openings are critical, I’m not lying about that, but original? Memorable in the grand scheme? I don’t know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shadow Clone Jutsu?! Hah, I’m trying for Sexy Jutsu!

      As for opening lines, I tend to agree with you. If you search (and I have) for examples of the best opening sentences – you tend to hit the same handful over and over again. Most of them are very dated. If the first line was so imperative, then why can’t I find a host of more modern examples?

      With that being said, I’m not going to discount the important of a well-crafted first sentence. It’s just not world shattering in the scheme of important things a book should have in it.

      I wrote the post with those writers in mind who are sitting there staring at the blinking cursor and blank page. Who have a story to tell, but are being hamstrung by the first few sentences. Who are saying, “How can I write this story if I can’t write a wiz-bang first sentence?”

      I was that writer. Writing, backspacing, and writing again. Until eventually I just started pounding away on the keyboard. My first page probably isn’t perfect, but it was more than 200 pages ago now – that’s what matters to me.

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment Matt. Good luck with the Shadow Clone Jutsu.

      Liked by 1 person

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