“You can take this job and SHOVE IT!”
I wish I could remember exactly where I read that – some book of advice for writers on how not to begin their stories. The above was an included (and, I thought, hilarious) example of one such poor “first part or stage, as of a book”, the excessively impassioned quote followed by the character throwing papers and kicking chairs and otherwise behaving like someone trying a little too hard to catch the readers’ attention.
Of course, catching the readers’ attention is precisely what we writers wish our opening lines to do – and, once hooked, we want to hold onto it for however long the story lasts, be it a hundred-word drabble or a hundred-thousand-word epic. So there’s a decent amount of pressure attached to selecting a first sentence, fragment, or paragraph that can really go the distance – so much so that one might view as a substantial boon the provision of a mandatory opening line as a part of a short story contest or quarterly publication.
I refer specifically to The First Line, a literary journal in which “each issue contains short stories that stem from a common first line” (quoting from their website’s “About” page, folks). It was my boundless pleasure to have a piece of mine published in The First Line’s latest issue (on sale here in PDF and paperback!), and a more moderate pleasure to build the mythological tale in question from the given starting point, “It had been a long year.”
More often, though, we’ll be required to come up with our own story openings, our perhaps repressed desire to see our first lines up there with the greats (or, at least, the very-well-knowns), such as:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
The famed opening spoofed by my first Ever On Word blog post subtitle. (First one to comment with the title of that book gets happy dance rights; brownie points if you can quote the actual line correctly.)
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
“Once upon a time…”
“Once upon a time…”
“Twice upon a time…” or “Once upon a something-other-than-a-time…”
Most of these openers will probably be familiar to you, even if you’ve never read the books from which they hail – a case of the first line achieving renown practically surpassing that of the story it’s introducing. How daunting to think of penning openings to rival such as these!
I’ll let you in on a heartening little secret, though: The opening is not the story. Even should the first line fail to brand itself into the minds of the general public for generations to come, you’ll be given paragraphs and pages to more than redeem yourself, and there is yet time for your story to become one of the most beloved books in some reader somewhere’s library.
I don’t have to be able to quote by heart “You who so plod amid serious things that you feel it shame to give yourself up even for a few short moments to mirth and joyousness in the land of Fancy; you who think that life hath nought to do with innocent laughter that can harm no one; these pages are not for you” in order to cherish my copy of Pyle’s “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood”.
That I can’t remember a word of “I do like a road, because you can be always wondering what is at the end of it” without dashing off to my bookshelf to look it up diminishes my love for Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “The Story Girl” not a bit.
If no one but my future fans can easily recall that the first chapter of my “Wilderhark Tales” begins “Doctor Villem Deere was not easily surprised”, I’ll be okay with that.
Unless you’ve somehow managed the remarkable feat of employing an opening that turns off your entire readership forever before they even glance at the second sentence (which almost seems worthy of a twisted sort of authorial pride), your first line is only that: The first line of many, many more.
So, important as your beginning words are, don’t spend too much time stressing over them – plow on through with an eye toward finishing strong, and leave your readers with more than just an opening to remember.