“Is there anyone in there?” Joey asked no one as he lit a cigarette and tried to ignore the burning car.
So many writers angst over where to start their story. I mean to the point of not being able to write. But while a strong opening is really important, it’s not important yet.
How can you decide this when you don’t even have your story written? You don’t have all your plot, all your characters, all the conflict.
This is what your first draft is for, to lay down your raw material. So start anywhere, and as you go, track two things. Scenes that have potential as openers. And happy little phrases that have potential as your title. Just bold bits you like and keep going.
The goal of your opening chapter is to hook the reader with your ‘voice’, a mood, a dramatic situation. Here is an opening scene which does the opposite.
“We are going out to dinner. I won’t say which restaurant because the next time it might be full of people who’ve come to see whether we’re there. Serge made the reservation. He’s always the one who arranges it, the reservation.”
Now the above quote is from The Dinner by Herman Koch. And as openings go it is incredibly pedestrian. But its very banality gets your attention. Who the hell is Serge? What is the big deal about going out to some dopey dinner?
So we keep reading.
I don’t know Mr. Koch, so I can’t tell you if this was his original opening or the fifth draft. But it does the job really well.
And then you have this:
“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
This is the opening of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. He hits us with a baseball bat — yet it is written in the most understated way possible. One of the great openings in literature.
And we keep reading.
But this is work for another day. Just lay down your story. I liken a first draft to dumping all the dry laundry on the bed. Then you sort it, towels first because that gives you a feeling of accomplishment and the remaining pile is diminished, and a sense of relief that all the whites are not pink from your efforts.
The other wonderful thing that happens when you have not over-structured your story is that your characters give you gifts. Flowers, chocolates, diamonds — it is amazing what they come up with when allowed to wander around. Maybe even your opening scene.
The other reason to not worry about your opening is that you are going to cut your first draft. A lot.
“How can this be? I love every word except perhaps a few thousand adverbs are for the compost bin.”
Why are you going to cut? Because your first draft is you telling your story to yourself. You need to know a lot of stuff, backstories, motivations, secrets… and while it’s important stuff, your readers don’t need to know it. Not all of it.
Starting the second and subsequent drafts, you are telling the story to the readers. What do they need to know? When do they need to know it?
Think of Rodin, or Mike Angelo, working away with little hammers and chisels revealing what is inside that expensive chunk of marble. Guess what’s in there? Your opening chapter. Your gripping opening scene. Your pencil grabbing someone by the throat.
So relax and tell your story. Your beginning will be revealed. I promise.