How to begin?
Writing the first sentences of an article or book are the hardest, at least for me. They have to be perfect before I go on because they set the stage for everything that follows, hinting at not only where the story will be going, but also letting readers know they’re in capable hands.
After watching six mesmerizing hours of Gatz, the Public Theater's reading and dramatization of the entire text of The Great Gatsby, I went back to look at the opening lines of this iconic work:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind every since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
The morning after the show, which started at two on a Sunday afternoon and ended at ten fifteen at night, including a dinner break, I went back to those lines and marveled at how they put the entire book in eye-opening perspective. Although few books can compare to Gatsby, I scanned my book shelves to see how others began their stories.
The opening paragraph of “Sweet Dreams Baby,” a novel by Sterling Watson, is one of my favorites:
I look out through the back door screen to see if the Pultneys are there. One of them is, Jimmy. I’m scared of the Pultneys, but I don’t say so. Dad says never say you’re scared and you won’t be. Jimmy Pultney has a chicken in one hand and a hatchet in the other. He holds the chicken by the next, and the neck stretches long. The chicken doesn’t try to get away. It hangs quiet, knowing it can’t. The chopping block is an old hickory stump. My dad says the Pultneys probably dragged it with them from some holler in the Ozarks. He calls them Okie trash.”
Okay now you can let go of that breath!
Another favorite opening is from Lolly Winston’s “Happiness Sold Separately.”
Elinor Mackey is cleaning out her purse, try to lighten her load, wondering how a broken sprinkler head wound up among the contents, when she first learns that her husband, Ted, is having an affair.
You're hooked, right?
What are your favorite opening lines or paragraphs? Why do you love them? Share your favorites!
Deborah Blumenthal is the author of thirteen books. Her latest young adult novel, THE LIFEGUARD, was published last month by Albert Whitman & Company.