10 Types of Beginnings, The Making of a Good First Line: From Me, To YouA Lesson by Sebastian Romero
Here, I will try to describe and narrow down 10 of the most common types of beginnings, then I will say what I like and dislike of each.
Why should you read this? Well, just as I have to convince you to read this, you have to convince me to read your piece. Sadly, you can’t do so in as blunt a manner as I can, because I can literally say and write why I consider this to be important, but you can’t. How can you convince me then? With the beginning of your story, most specifically a good first sentence.
Yes, other factors come into play: the synopsis, the author, the cover, and those sentences that come after that first sentence. So of course, if you have a bad or a just-okay first sentence, it’s okay. But why should you settle? You want to grip me from the start! So here are a couple of types of first sentences I’ve encountered throughout the years.
Of course, there are more types, these are just the general or most common types. Some may be similar, some beginnings may fit more than one category, and some may be so original and groundbreaking, that can’t be categorized.
Further on, I’ll say what I like and dislike of each one of these types.
Remember this is my opinion, and that it’s extremely subjective. Feel free to contradict me and everything! I won’t get mad. :)
I. Let’s start at the beginning:
This is the typical beginning, and you can’t go wrong with it. What do you do? You have to take your character and place him in the beginning of the action, the beginning of the adventure he’s going to embark, you put him where it all starts. If it starts in a coffee shop, if it starts in a train, if it starts with someone waking up…. This is the sort of the Father of beginnings because most beginnings start this way (so many of the other categories will be similar, but with a different variable or two).
Joyce Carol Oates, Them: One warm evening in August 1937 a girl in love stood before a mirror.
Gustav Flaubert, Madame Bovary: We were in class when the head-master came in, followed by a "new fellow," not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk.
The first example fits perfectly with this category, because it gives you a year, a place, a character, and a sentiment or circumstance. Random fact, it is one of my favorite beginnings of all time.
The second example is not as explicative, we don’t know the year or season or much of a description of characters, but it still starts at the beginning of the story of Madame Bovary. Neither of these sentences indicate that a lot of things have happened prior to the novel (though of course they have).
It’s conservative, it’s safe, you can’t go wrong with it. If the story’s good, you don’t have to worry. If the novel’s not overly experimental or complex, there is probably no better way to begin.
It’s conservative, it’s safe, couldn’t you do something more original? This depend on the type or writing you want to do, but it’s harder to do a great and shocking beginning with something this safe.
II. Slice of Life:
Slice of life is a style or genre that tries to imitate life as closely as possible. Stories that fall in this category usually have no main plot, like the movies Boyhood or 6 Years or Somewhere… How, you may ask, can you translate this to the beginning of your story? Well, these are the beginnings that place their characters in a simple and mundane action; by this sentences you can’t really know what’s going to happen next, and there is not a single threat of plot in them. Usually, they are short, and with little to no adjectives, and they don’t intend to give you much information either of the story or of the character.
Charles Bukowski, Factotum: I arrived in New Orleans in the rain at 5 o’clock in the morning.
Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood: I was thirty-seven then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to the Hamburg airport.
Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murat: I was returning home through the field.
It is merely a coincidence that the beginnings I found are related to trips, traveling or getting somewhere. However, as you can see in the three of them, they don’t give you any information of the character, of the plot, of the story, of the themes, of any other character, or anything. They are simple, mundane actions that anyone could do.
These beginnings are unpretentious, often elegant and minimalistic. Someone who is extremely confident that their story is good can use these, and prove that they don’t need a pompous and shocking beginning to prove their story is worth reading. They are, or can turn, timeless because they are usually mundane actions that everyone can do.
It can be seen as elitist, but really the main trouble is that these beginnings don’t have hooks, and so you can lose readers for that. It is just a matter of what kind of story you want to write. If you want a national bestselling thriller, skip this one!
III. Woah, wait, what?
These beginnings are the shocking ones, the ones that tell you from the start you are not going to be able to let this book alone. They are usually short, concise, full of suspense and mystery. There’s usually a secret involved, or a revelation, or a crime, or a lie. It is something that shocks the reader, it confronts him, something that he didn’t expect being at the beginning of a book. These type of books commonly begin in the middle or the ending of the drama, and whether or not the story returns or retells what happens before depends on the book. For example, with Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, we never know the reason for his transformation.
Joyce Carol Oates, Expensive People: I am a child murderer.
Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera: The Opera ghost really exists.
Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories: In the memorable year when the famous Berlin wall came down, a corpse was discovered in the Tierganter not far from the grading marble statue of Queen Louise.
The first example is a revelation. The character is bringing to us information he probably doesn’t tell a lot of people, and we are instantly intrigued by it. Another plus for the sentence is that it can have two meanings: the character is a person who kills children, or the character is a child that has killed people, or at least, that he killed someone when he was a child.
The second beginning is shocking because it’s a statement that contradicts the rules of the world we live in. Of course, most of us know the ghost isn’t really a ghost, but you need to read more than the first line to figure that one out.
Finally, the last ending is shocking because of the mystery of the body. A lot of crime thrillers or legal novels start with a crime of a sort, and this helps the reader get immediately involved and intrigued by the story.
This sort of beginnings are a great hook, and you can probably get a lot of people to read your work. Or to at least get them to read the first couple of pages.
Some people think it’s cheap, and it can fall on melodrama or a bad thriller. This isn’t always the case, but it can happen.
IV. Where are we?
Here I mean to those beginnings that take the reader to a specific setting, to a specific physical place. Contrary to Start at the beginning, this first sentences focus on the physical world surrounding the character, or even sometimes just the physical world in itself. These sentences usually evoke the senses, they make you see things, rather than merely see the character.
John Steinbeck, East of Eden: The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.
Joyce Carol Oates, Marya: It was a night of patchy dreams, strangers’ voices, rain hammering on the tarpaper too close overhead.
Péter Nádas, A Book of Memories: The last place I lived in Berlin was at the Kühnerts’, out in Schöneweide, on the second floor of a villa covered in vines.
Here we see how this can be done as Steinbeck does it, literally and purely setting the story, without doing anything else. He doesn’t name characters, he doesn’t give out plots or subplots, he doesn’t do anything but set the story. This can give a sense to the reader that the location is equally or almost as important as the characters.
Or one can do it as Oates does it, making a description of the place the character’s in. This way, the imagery can help the reader to imagine where the character is, rather than knowing what the character is doing or who he is.
Finally, you can do it as Nádas does it, making a reference to a place the character was some time ago, where he isn’t anymore. This gives a sensation of nostalgia, or that this is going to be a historic novel.
For some stories, the setting is a character in itself (for example, with Wuthering Heights), and this way the reader can get to know the setting before anything, and it puts the physicality of the story to the front of it all. Also, it can sometimes work to give out a nostalgic feel to it. Also, it can give a sense of elegance to the story, as if you’re not hurrying to tell the story. Also, it can give an idea of how the images will work throughout the text.
As with Slice of life, this type of beginnings can lack a hook, and it can be somewhat tedious or just plain forgettable.
V. What about beginning somewhere else?
These are the beginnings that, from the start, you know that a lot has already happened. Maybe they start halfway through the book, or at the real ending; maybe they go back and re-tell what has happened, or maybe they don’t. These sentences give the reader a feeling that he got to the party a little too late, which can be good, of course.
Gabriel García Marquez, A Hundred Years of Solitude: Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides: On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from where it was possible to tie a rope.
Ian McEwan, Amsterdam: Two former lovers of Molly Lane stood waiting outside the cremation chapel with their backs to the February chill.
This can be done with a single three-word phrase like Marquez does: ‘Many years later…’ With this, the reader already knows that there were some years before the novel that come to relevance. However, this can easily be ignored or overlooked by some readers, whereas with beginnings like Eugenides’ this is obvious: with that first sentence, we already know that all the sisters killed themselves, and how they killed themselves. This has to come from a writer that is so good and confident that his book is a good one, that he can spoil it in the first sentence, and still think that the readers will want to read the rest.
Finally, this can be done as McEwan does it, with mere hints that important things have already happened, and that they will come to play throughout the novel. For those of us who already read Amsterdam, we know that there are no flashbacks, just some told memories and some unresolved feelings.
This can give you a good, interesting hook. If for example, you place the first chapter (or even the prologue) near the end, this can make the reader curious, and he’s going to want to know what happens.
It can be spoiler-ish, and it can be seen as cheap, as something an airport-kind-of-book would have. Not always, of course, but one has to be careful to do it tastefully, and not with the sole intention to have a hook on readers.
VI. Ah, so that’s why it’s titled that way:
By this, I mean those beginning that make a direct reference to the title, or that when read, a reader can know why the book’s titled like that. What else can I say? It's pretty much self-explanatory.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway: Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita: Lolita, love of my life, fire of my loins.
Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea: He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
The first two beginnings have things in common: the title is the name of a character, and the first line alludes to that character. However, this doesn’t have to be the case, as seen on the third example. Yes, by this example we know why it’s called The Old Man and The Sea, because the line makes reference to an old fisher man, so we assume that because he’s a fisher, there’s a connection with the sea. Yet, the title is understood, but it isn’t repeated literally.
If you google ‘best book beginnings’ or something of the sort, I promise that at least two of those three examples will come up. I’ve read a couple, and most of the times the three of them are up there. Why’s that? Well, a lot of people see this move as a bold one: no cheap thrills, no surprises, here’s why it’s titled like this. Of course, they are also greatly written, but this can be seen as courageous, confident and mature.
Me personally, I like to find out later on why the book is titled that way, or for it to be interpretable. For example, The Catcher in the Rye or The Sound and The Fury. But this is personal, of course.
VII. Triggers, Triggers, Triggers:
These are the beginnings that show something, or describe something, that works as a trigger to the story: without this event, probably nothing in the book would’ve happened.
Following the cause-effect rule, this event works as a cause, and the rest of the plot is the effect. It can be something mundane, something supernatural, something tragic, etc.
Amy Bloom, Lucky Us: My father’s wife died.
Bernard Schlink, The Reader: When I was fifteen, I got hepatitis.
Dona Tart, The Goldfinch: When I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.
As we can see from these examples, it can be something like a death, or a sickness, or even something that doesn’t necessarily trigger the story but triggers the character to tell it. And taking The Reader’s example, for those of you who don’t know the story, the kid gets hepatitis, and a woman cares for him for a while; later, when he’s feeling better, he goes out and finds the woman and thanks her. They then have a relationship that works as the core to the book, so his sickness is what causes or triggers all these events
They are good ways to start a story, because they can be an in-between between the suspenseful, or thrilling beginning (Whoa, wait, what?), and a normal, mundane beginning (Slice of life). It can have a hook, or a sense of mystery (like the third example), yet it doesn’t necessarily has to be a cheap hook. Also, it can play with themes of destiny and chance, for example, if this hadn’t happened, would that had happened?
If it’s a silly or stupid trigger, it may seem sloppy, as if you’re hanging your story by a thin thread that doesn’t even make much sense.
VIII. Let’s Talk:
These are the stories or books that start with a dialogue. There’s nothing much else to add, though.
Colm Tóibín, Nora Webster: “You must be fed up of them. Why will they never stop coming?”
Joyce Carol Oates, Daddy Love: Take my hand, she said.
As one can see with the first example, the dialogue may be direct, or indirect, as it is with the second example.
You give a voice before giving a setting, which is probably the opposite the Where are we? type of beginnings. If it’s a good voice, or if it’s a good conversation, it might be good to start there. Also, it gives the readers a sense that they’re really beginning the story. Sometimes, some books don’t seem to start until page 5 or 10, as it’s the case with East of Eden, where the first complete chapter is full description of the place.
Personally, I don’t like this type of beginnings, but that doesn’t mean much, really. Not a lot of books start this way, because it generally lacks a hook. Also, it is more common for Young Adult books to start this way, though that is not always the case.
IX. Hello, This Is Me:
These are the beginnings where the character presents itself to you. Most commonly, these are in first person, but that isn’t necessarily the case. They can present their name, their story, a characteristic of them, a personality trait, a point of view over something, the options are many. Authors have played with this sort of beginning because it is the most obviously linked to the self. Who am I? What have I gone through? What have I done?
Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones: My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie.
John Barth, The End of the Road: In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man: I am an invisible man.
J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye: If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the wind: Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.
I put a lot of examples, because there are a lot of ways to take upon these type of beginnings. First comes Sebold’s example. This is the most typical, they present their name to the reader. Just as the beginning of Moby Dick.
With the second beginning, which is an incredible beginning, the author is presenting the character, but is he really who he thinks he is? From the start, he is playing with Jacob Horner’s identity.
Thirdly, Ellison presents a characteristic of the character he is creating. He doesn’t give you a name, but rather a defining trait of the person.
Then comes the fourth example, which is rather the character presenting himself as a storyteller; he comes and tells the reader that he’s going to tell him his story… not all of it, but some, as he proclaims.
Finally, I put the last example because it is in third person, and we see here the character, with a name, and a description of her. The author presents us with the character, even if we don’t necessarily feel as if the character is being as directly presented to us. This can be also something you can play with: the game of presenting your reader a character, how much? How often? Under what light? By whom? Is it him presenting himself, or the author, or another character, or a long list of other characters, as it happens with Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room.
The reader gets to know the character before anything else, and you can play with the game of identity, and with the idea of author-narrator.
It has been used many times, and in many ways, so coming up with an unsettling or original beginning like this may be hard.
X. Is this a novel, or a philosophical thesis?
When they are well executed, this type of beginning are probably the best, and most beautiful of them all. Why? These are the ones that seem like a philosophical or sociological theses and even work as such, because often enough, the novels they’re part of serve as a way to prove—or intentionally disprove—this beginning sentence. They don’t really take upon the plot of the texts but work as separate thoughts.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterly’s Lover: Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.
Joyce Carol Oates, American Appetite: What is destiny—a mechanical fact, a theoretical possibility, a concept, a superstition, a mere word?
Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
There is not much more I can write here, these are pretty much self-explanatory, but as you can see, all these beginnings are practically sociological or philosophical statements of life. You can use general philosophical concepts like Oates did with destiny, for example: time, love, happiness, life, people, etc. You can go to a more sociological statement (meaning that it regards society in a direct way), as Tolstoy did. This doesn’t mean it has to have a serious tone, for example Pride and Prejudice’s beginning is completely ironical. The options are endless, and if it’s a good sentence, it can be more memorable than anything.
When well executed, a beginning like this could get a lot of attention, by those critics and common readers. They can be debated, and they serve as a lens through which to see and/or analyse the novel. For example, with Oates’ line, one debate what is destiny, and how it presents itself in the novel.
These are the hardest, and most often than not, they seem silly and forced.
Challenge (Choose one):
P.S. Most can be applied to more than one or even two types, and there are way more types, these are the ones I’ve encountered more often.
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Added on July 8, 2016
Last Updated on July 8, 2016
Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico
AboutI am a Mexican author. I study literature and psychology. I'm moving to Iowa next fall.