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How to Write Story Beginnings

I’ve been thinking about beginnings—for my novel, a few short stories I’m working on, and anything else I might start were I inspired to do so. What makes a good story beginning? Apparently that is up for debate, as famous story writers over the years have done almost everything to start a story. So I pulled a few of my favourite novels off my bookshelf and took a look at just the first paragraph.

I must be crazy, I tell myself, to stick my neck in a noose on my birthday. My husband, Carl, thinks my gesture is gracious and long overdue, so he kisses my cheek and bows gallantly before opening the door of my ’85 Mercedes roadster. “Knock ‘em dead, dear. I can’t wait to hear all about it.” (The Novelist, Angela Hunt)

The orchestra played a mellow rendition of “Moonlight Serenade” as Cameron Hayes drew in a deep breath and made her move. Seated several tables away from where she stood by the refreshment table, industrialist Donald Farr looked like a benevolent grandfather. The perfectly styled graying hair, the aquiline features, even the crows-feet at the corners of his pale blue eyes made him seem harmless indeed. (Written on the Wind, Judith Pella)

The first time I saw the sin eater was the night Granny Forbes was carried to her grave. I was very young and Granny my dearest companion, and I was greatly troubled in my mind. (The Last Sin Eater, Francine Rivers)

Do you want to read any of those novels now?

If so, why? Fred Stenson says, “The beginning must pose a question of sufficient interest that readers read on in search of an answer” (Things Feigned or Imagined). All of these examples pose at least one such question. What is the “noose” she is sticking her neck into? What is Cameron’s move? What’s the next time she sees the sin eater?

It has been said that the opening lines of a book are the most crucial ones, to hook the editor into publishing the book or the reader into buying the book. (With that hanging over a writer, no wonder so many of us get writer’s block and just stare at the flashing cursor on the computer—or do the housework instead of even getting to the computer.) So, as I consider how to rewrite a few beginnings, maybe I’ll go look at a few more successful ones. And maybe you’d like to share what pulls you into a story—what hooks you in the first paragraph?

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