Where the heck do I begin?
It’s one of the oldest questions in the history of the wordsmith. You’ve got this amazing story swirling in the gray mist in your head, birthing images and witty little one-liners you know will bring chuckles or dramatic 3-chord pauses, but as soon as you plunk your butt in the chair, it disappears. That magnificent first line the muse whispered in your ear on the drive home went right out the other. Raise your hand if this has happened to you.
I see you’re all raising your hands. Except for you. Sit down. No cookie for you.
If you’re not Mr. Perfection sulking sadly in the back without a cookie, then this article is for you. Though I can’t give you a magical fix-it for this head-scratcher, I can offer what fantastic or crappy knowledge I’ve gained over the years. I’ll offer a few ideas on how to start that story, but ultimately it’s up to you to stalk, hunt down, chase, stab and eat the one that’s crunchiest for you.
1. Short and Simple
Take the start of this thread, for example. Being that it was the keynote of the entire piece, it wasn’t hard to come up with. This particular tidbit of tastiness came from the enigmatic mind of my peace corp adventurer college English professor, Jim Toner. Keeping the first paragraph limited to one short sentence, even one word, is a way to snag the reader by the nubbins and pull them into your work. This is a dangerous method, though, as it doesn’t always have the desired effect unless you choose you words carefully. It’s like picking out that perfect outfit for a blind date. Which will impress him/her more with an Emerol BAM!? This is one of my favorite tactics to use. I also like to think of this one as the “Attention Deficit Disorder Intro– oh look, a butterfly.”
2. It Burns Us!
Setting fire to your reader with a description of hellmouths and brimstone as though you’ve thrown them into the lava along with your character is one way to go. There are some stories I’ve read where I’ve enjoyed being sucker-punched into a chair by the power of the first paragraph, and times when I’ve walked way rubbing a bloody nose.
3. Float Gently Like a Leaf on Water
A Zen philosopher sits down on the smooth petals of a bed of lilies, opens his mouth, and whispers the lilting words of ageless wisdom. You are softened into his tome as though pulled into a cushion of warm air where the sinewy arms of delicate fairies wrap themselves around you in pure comfort and sing you into the world of the powerful, yet caressing voice of the author. In this into, you can either float along the descriptions, or deliquesce into them.
4. Enough Already!
The Information Bomb. The story begins with a full page of description detailing family trees, battlements, weapons, the lusty woes of a tainted woman seeking revenge, minute setting details down to the number of legs on the insect crawling up a wall, and the strategy one house uses on another to dethrone their influence in the land, or world, or galaxy. This type of intro I’ve affectionately named the “Slow Press.” It’s like a good cup of coffee, only you don’t get a single cup to savor while wondering what the next cup tastes like. Oh no. You get the entire boiling bubbling percolating pot. Before you know it, you’re heavy with indigestion and running for the bathroom. I’ll name one author who did this to me. I was lucky to fight my way through the thick gnarl of straight-up information two chapters thick: Frank Herbert, “Dune.” Now, if you like this sort of beginning, and it works for you, by all means use it. Use it to all of its great bombastic potential.
Some of us are coffee people, and some of us are tea people. You’ll never know what your reader likes until they pick up your story. Try out a few things and see what fits. Much like in school with those “what does this mean to you” questions, there are no wrong answers, just curious interpretations that leave your teacher wondering how their student made it this far.