In honor of NANOWRIMO, I’m finally finishing up this series on writing great beginnings. Whether you need some inspiration for your novel’s first lines when the alarm clock rings on November 1 or you’re looking to revise the beginning of your picture book or novel, here are four more techniques for starting strong, along with examples and writing exercises to get you going.
Feel free to share your favorite first lines (from your own book or someone else’s) below. Also, if you share this on FB or Twitter and let me know in the comments section before midnight Wednesday, November 4, I’ll throw your name in a hat to possibly win a $25 gift certificate to BN.com. The winner will be announced Thursday November 5.
No. 7 START WITH A FIRST, LAST, BEST, WORST OR OTHER SIGNIFICANT LIFE EVENT
Writing exercise: Ask yourself these questions about your character:
- Will she be experiencing a particular life event for the first time during your story?
- Will your character be doing something for the last time that she will never be able to do again, e.g., play a sport, dance, be with a particular person, etc.
- During the story, will your character experience the worst thing (or what she thinks is the worst thing) that might ever happen to her for the rest of her life?
- Will your character be experiencing some significant one-time-only life event such as a high school graduation, sweet sixteen party, bar mitzvah, or break-up with a first love?
If you’ve discovered a first, last, worst, or other significant event that your character will experience in the book, think about how you can make it a bang-up beginning? Take a look at how the following writers did it:
Vacation is only a week away, and Stewart’s parents are taking him camping for the very first time.
It’s going to be so much fun. I absolutely cannot wait!!!
It was Monday, the worst day of the week. It was morning, the worst time of day. It was raining, the worst kind of weather. I was in class, the worst place to be. I was so unhappy.
I was thirteen the first time I saw a police officer up close. He was arresting me for driving without a license. At the time, I didn’t even know what a license was. I wasn’t too clear on what being arrested meant either.
The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.
I’m sixteen now, so you can imagine that’s left me with quite a few days of major suckage.
I was seventeen years old when I saw my first dead body. It wasn’t my cousin Oslo’s. It was a woman who looked to have been around fifty or at least in her late forties…
The worst night of my life? My first—and last—date with Angela O’Bannon.
The first time I died, I didn’t see God.
No light at the end of the tunnel. No haloed angels. No dead grandparents.
To be fair, I probably wasn’t a solid shoo-in for heaven. But, honestly, I kind of assumed I’d make the cut.
The morning after noted child prodigy Colin Singleton graduated from high school and got dumped for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine, he took a bath.
It doesn’t start here.
You’d think it would: two terrified girls in the middle of nowhere, cowering together, eyes bulging at the gun in his hand.
But it doesn’t start here.
It starts the first time I almost die.
According to my mother, my first kiss happened on a Saturday in July. The weather: steamy, blacktop-melting, jungle-gym-scorching New York City sunshine. The setting: the 49th Street playground in Queens, good on the sand quotient, low on the rats. The kisser: Hector Driggs, cute but a little bit smelly, like wet blankets and aged cheese. The event: one sopping, clammy-lipped, deranged, lunging kiss, directly on my lips.
I bit him.
I was three.
No. 8 START WITH A PORTRAIT (PHYSICAL, BEHAVIORAL, OR PSYCHOLOGICAL) OF A CHARACTER
Writing exercise: Make lists of your main character’s unique physical, behavioral, or psychological features. Would starting with a description of any of those characteristics tell your particular audience something so intriguing that they’d have to read on to find out how these features will play into your story? Take a look at these character portraits in popular books to see how they made readers want to turn the page.
Suggested twist on this exercise: Make a list of traits your character doesn’t display, even though readers might expect her to. See You Have Seven Messages by Stewart Lewis or You and Me and Him by Kris Dinnison (below) for great examples of that technique.
Viola Louise Hassenfeffer was not an ordinary princess.
She spent her time karate-chopping, diving into the moat, and skateboarding up and down the drawbridge.
He was a good old dog and a hot old dog, as he lay in the noonday sun. And he dozed and he drowsed in the beating-down sun, with his long pink tongue hanging out.
Gerald was a tall giraffe/whose neck was long and slim./But his knees were awfully crooked/and his legs were rather thin./He was very good at standing still/and munching shoots off trees./But when he tried to run around,/he buckled at the knees.
Frank was always frank. “Honesty is the best policy,” he said.
I have been accused of being anal retentive, an over-achiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things.
They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring
They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept.
They say if you knew he was coming and you sprinkled salt on the ground and he ran over it, within two or three blocks he would be as slow as everybody else.
I may be fourteen, but I read the New York Times. I don’t wear hair clips or paint my cell phone with nail polish, and I’m not boy crazy. I don’t have a subscription to Twist or Bop or Flop or whatever they call those glossy magazines full of posters of shiny-haired, full-lipped hunks.
Later in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
I was a strange child. Strange looking, for certain, with buckteeth, red hair (and matching invisible eyelashes), a hooked nose, and barely the hint of a chin. My classmates at Coral Ridge Elementary teased me about these defects as if it was their God-given right. Maybe it was. After all, if I wanted to fit in, wouldn’t I just act more normal?
Let’s get one thing straight from the very beginning: I am not one of those shrinking-violet fat girls. I don’t sit alone in my bedroom playing Billie Holiday albums while drowning my sorrows in a carton of ice cream. Okay, once—maybe twice—a year, but not every weekend. I have friends, a great job in a vintage record store, and even some minor social status. But I am an overweight teenage girl going to an American high school. It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to figure out there are going to be some issues.
No. 9 START WITH FORESHADOWING
Writing exercise: Choose an important event or plot turn in your story. Make a list of ways you can foreshadow that event without giving the plot away. Could one of them make a good beginning?
On the outside Bernadette was mostly monsterly. She lurched. She growled. She caused mayhem of all kinds. But underneath the fangs and fur, Bernadette had a deep … dark … secret.
Wooby loved his goldfish, Wendy, and his humble home. He lived on a quiet little street where the neighbors minded their own business.
Until one day …
The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind
his mother called him “WILD THING!”
and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!”
so he was sent to bed without eating anything.
When Chu sneezed, big things happened.
The pencil didn’t look magic.
It looked the opposite of magic.
My sickest secret is about Dad. I stole his ashes and filled his internment box with sand, ground-up puka shells, and a mashed-up plastic necklace from a vintage shop in the Hawaiian Village. I gave it to my mom with the fake remains after she came back from the mainland with Uncle Mike. The freakiest part of the whole thing is that she sleeps with the box next to her bed. She thinks that someday her ashes and Dad’s will be buried together. Sorry about that. I loved my dad more than any other person on the planet. I just didn’t think about what the long-term karma would be.
When my dad gave me this journal two years ago and said “Fill it with your impressions,” I imagine he had a more idyllic portrait of boarding school life in mind.
Ruby said I’d never drown—not in deep ocean, not by shipwreck, not even by falling drunk into someone’s bottomless backyard pool.
Looking back, none of this would have happened if I’d brought lip gloss the night of the Homecoming Dance.
No. 10 START WITH A HINT OF A MYSTERY
Writing exercise: Think of a big question that will be raised in your story that will create suspense in your reader. See if you can bring up that question in your first few lines without giving too much away. Or, begin your story by relating a startling event and make the reader keep turning pages to find out both the cause and eventual effects of that event.
Dinosaurs were all wiped out/A long way back in history/No one knows quite how or why/Now this book solves the mystery …
There are eight million stories in the forest. This is one of them.
It was a typical Sunday morning for the Bear family. They had gone out for a walk while their porridge was cooling.
I was working the robbery detail out of the Pinecone Division. My name’s Binky I’m a cop
The call came in at 12:15 p.m. It was Mrs. Bear, and she was upset. I knew I’d better get out there right away.
It wasn’t there. Then it was.
Later, that was how Angela DuPre would describe the airplane—over and over, to one investigator after another—until she would never speak of it again.
When Lily Gefelty got out of bed on the morning of the big game, she looked out the window to see what kind of day it was going to be. She discovered that it was the kind of day when a million beetles crawl out of the ground and swarm the streets, forecasting evil.
You’re in your favorite bookstore, scanning the shelves. You get to the section where a favorite author’s books reside, and there, nestled in comfortably between the incredibly familiar spines, sits a red notebook.
What do you do?
The choice, I think, is obvious:
You take down the red notebook and open it.
And then do whatever it tells you.
I don’t know how I ended up on the side of Hollister Road, lying in this ditch.
This moment, last night, the details—all fuzzy. A reluctant glance down and I see I’m covered in scratches and bruises. The bruise on my shin appears to be in the shape of a French fry. French fries cause bruises? And I have at least five stains on my royal blue iridescent dress—two black, one greenish-bluish, and the remaining are various shades of yellow. What are these? Mustard? Curry?
Wait. I don’t even want to know.
In the dark woods behind the baseball dugout, I’m kneeling next to Katherine’s body, my heart racing, my breaths shallow and fast, my emotions reeling crazily at the sight on the ground before me. Katherine is lying on her side, curled up, as if she was cowering from whoever attacked her. Her body is still warm, but there’s no pulse.