Every great novel has a great beginning.
For A Tale of Two Cities, it's “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” For Moby Dick there's the oft-quoted “Call me Ishmael.”
Yet one of my favorite first lines may also be the simplest: “This is what happened,” from Stephen King’s The Mist.
Now, it’s no secret that I’m obsessed with--er--a big fan of Stephen King. Not his number one fan, mind you. That would send me waltzing into the world of Misery’s Annie Wilkes. But from the moment I opened Carrie, I’ve been captivated by King and his ability to breathe life not just into stories, but into worlds peopled by characters who seem to have existed long before leaping onto the page.
Like many aspiring novelists, I read King’s On Writing. Part craft instructional, part memoir, it’s a delightful peek under King’s novel-writing hood, offering insight and inspiration into how the master does what he does—all while making it look easy.
King knows from good beginnings. In fact, in this article of The Atlantic, he talks about how he spends months—even years—writing an opening sentence, using this first phrase as a barometer of the book’s merit. Or lack thereof. Um, no pressure, Steve-o.
The thing is, I sort of agree with him. The right opening is key. The Mist’s first line, simple though it is, was inspired by Douglas Fairbairn’s Shoot, and King loved it for the same reason I do. It satisfies every reader’s most fundamental desire: to know what happened.
The beginning of my novel, Protocol, was one of the last things I wrote. Oh, I had a beginning when I first, well, began. In fact, I had what I believed was a very compelling beginning. Turns out it was more sentence than substance, more sizzle than steak. It was not, as King so aptly points out, a way into the story.
That came later when I realized the reader needed to know “This is what happened” right from the very start.
Protocol starts simply with a declaration of the problems that began long before the protagonist knew about them:
“It wasn’t until she was five blocks from home, well past the newsstand but before the buckling sidewalk in front of the old library, that Elsa Henderson knew she was being followed.”
My new opener did what I wanted. It established time, place and a story question. Most of all, it helped the reader find his or her way into the story with an invitation that said, “Right this way, please.”
I’m thinking a lot about beginnings these days. Probably because I’m on the cusp of one of my own as I pursue publication.
What are some of your favorite beginnings—literary or otherwise? I’ll bet they made you feel as if someone patted a chair beside them and said, “Come. Listen. See what happens.” And then the adventure began.
Comic illustration credit: Charles Schulz