In my last Writing Club post I wrote about two kinds of opening sentences, 1. Description, and 2. Action. Let’s continue …
3. INTRODUCE THE MAIN CHARACTER
This is an extremely popular and effective way to open a book. It can be in first person-
Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick, Herman Melville)
Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood. (The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan)
Or third person-
There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always. (The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster)
In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers)
Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg)
There was once a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire. (Stardust, by Neil Gaiman)
Meeting the main character right away in a story is tremendously satisfying, and I’ve found a terrific explanation why, in an article on the website Screen Craft:
Readers and audiences inherently enter your story with uncertainty because they don’t know what to expect. They immediately start looking for the character to focus on and orient themselves to; they’re begging to meet your protagonist so that they feel safe.
Think of your lead as a tour guide. If people sign up for a tour and meet at the designated start point to find no one there or a group of people who are indistinguishable, confusion and chaos will soon ensue. Readers and audience members want to be lead, so lead them. They’re going to want to latch onto the first character they see… (Cameron Cubbison, “5 Key Things to Keep in Mind When Writing Your Opening Scene”)
Some writers may not fully introduce that main character. Some may just hint at him:
All children, except one, grow up. (Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie)
Barrie goes on to talk of other things after this first sentence, but he’s planted an intriguing seed: we know there is a child who doesn’t grow up in this story, and we are curious about him. An extremely effective first sentence, not to mention elegantly simple.
4. INTRODUCE THE VILLAIN
Or you could do the opposite and start with your villain. The idea would be to build up the baddie as awe-inspiringly dangerous, which then begs the question, “Who can defeat such a monster?!”, at which point you introduce your hero.
In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES. (The Witches, by Roald Dahl)
It doesn’t need to be an actual villain, you could start simply with a dangerous situation – war, plague, swarm of killer bees, approaching tsunami. The main thing is you want the reader to feel the situation is dark, nearly hopeless, and yet… they are also wondering “who is the person to overcome this obstacle and how will she/he do it??”
Or, if you want a lighter way to do it, skipping the horrorshow bad guys, simply introduce someone who is a smaller obstacle for the main character, or who is totally opposite to the main character:
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense. (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling)
5. THE DIRECT APPROACH
That’s my name for openings in which the narrator speaks directly to the reader, and says something specific about the story to come.
If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. (The Bad Beginning, by Lemony Snicket)
Sometimes it explains why or how the story has been written, but in a way that impresses upon the reader that what follows is a very important, or very unusual tale.
Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__ and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof. (Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson)
It’s a little wordy, but I like that one because it gives us the delicious little tidbit that there is an island with treasure still on it, just waiting to be found!
Or how about this one, which is about as direct as you can get:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. (If on a winter’s night a traveller, by Italo Calvino)
Still more types of openings to come… Stay tuned.
Try to write an intriguing opener – you don’t have to have a story in mind, just try to write a ‘killer’ first sentence. Write one of each kind!
Here are some new words we’ve shared in recent meetings…
omniscient – knowing everything : having unlimited understanding or knowledge. eg. omniscient narrator
caboodle – collection, lot
insipid – 1. lacking flavour; 2. lacking vigour or interest
industrial – of or relating to industry : of or relating to factories, the people who work in factories, or the things made in factories
insidious – 1 a. awaiting to entrap; b. harmful but enticing; 2. a. having a gradual and cumulative effect; b. developing so gradually as to be well established before becoming apparent