'Once upon a time ...'
Stories read to us in childhood often began this way and when I heard those words, I was filled with a delightful anticipation of what was to come, snuggling down even closer to Mom as she read from the picture book before my bedtime. Even now, I find myself going, 'Yes? OK? What is going to happen?'
Beginnings are everything in our stories. They hook the reader in, entice us to read on, we want to find out what happens. Even that classic clanger, 'It was a dark and stormy night' does the trick - what happened on that dark and horrid night?
I'll often pick up a book in the shop and read the first line. If it doesn't grab me, I'll put it down - is that fair to the writer? Probably not - but for me, as a reader, I know what I want and if I don't see it on the first page, I'll probably move on because there are so many other books out there ...
I've written about 'famous first lines' before and if you Google search, you can find lists of them. Here's one from Iain M. Banks (The Crow Road 1992): 'It was the day my grandmother exploded.'
Wow - I'd like to know whether she literally combusted out on the front porch in her rocking chair or did she blow up with anger and rage, red-faced with clenched fists.
Every first draft has a first line, and sometimes that first line will make it through to the final version. I began my book The Pink Party with, 'The invitations to Colleen's Pink Party said, 'Wear your best pink' so even the men have dressed up.' That sentence stayed as the first one right through to the published book.
Sometimes the beginning may occur to us when we're working on the middle, or the end, of our story. While writing my book about Mom, I was typing away on the middle and thought, 'This sentence would make a great beginning' - that's the fabulous thing about cut and paste.
It's important to be 'organic' with beginnings and first lines - often they will find their own way, present themselves without you having to structure them or force them into being.
That first line may surprise you. It could be an overheard snippet of dialogue, a newspaper headline, and it can inspire a whole story or book. I was sitting with a friend some years ago; she was ill in Hospice care, full of pain medications, drifting in and out of sleep.
Suddenly, she opened her eyes and said with clarity and surprising strength, 'I can't hear the waves tonite.' That became the first line in a short story I wrote.
So when you're starting out with a story, don't let coming up with a ripper first line trip you up - don't think you can't start writing without one because you can and of course as we've said, that first line might even be the inspiration for your story in the first place.
(My editor would say, 'You've used 'first' too many times here.')