In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," an old man stops three people on the street. He has a story to tell. They’re on their way to a wedding and don’t want to listen to this stranger, so he physically grabs one of them (prompting one of my favorite lines: “‘Unhand me, grey-beard loon!’”). Then, pinning the listener in place with just his eyes and his voice, the ancient mariner tells his story of guilt and horror and penance. “And till my ghastly tale is told,” he says, “This heart within me burns.”
We begin the writing of any story as the “grey-beard loon,” hoping the wedding guest will stand still long enough to listen. No wonder a blank page can seem so daunting. We can’t pin the reader in place with anything but our words.
With that in mind, I’ve assembled a few examples of favorite opening lines from recent books:
“You think it’s so easy to change yourself.
You think it’s so easy, but it’s not.
What do you think it takes to reinvent yourself as an all-new person, a person who makes sense, who belongs?”
--Leila Sales, This Song Will Save Your Life
“I lie in pieces on the floor. A hundred different things surround me: shards of a destroyed wooden jewelry box, some cracked CDs, a few ripped books, a shredded picture of Connor and me. I think my insides must look like they do, all churned up and cracked and unrecognizable.”
--Amanda Grace, But I Love Him
“For as long as anyone can remember, the students of Mount Washington High have arrived at school on the last Monday in September to find a list naming the prettiest and the ugliest girl in each grade.
This year will be no different.”
--Siobhan Vivian, The List
“When I said it, I didn’t mean it. I just wanted to go home after another long day in the ICU. But then, I didn’t know it was really the end this time.”
--Jackson Pearce, Purity
“The surge of chattering, pointing, gawking people pours into the massive auditorium, and I feel a shiver crawl up my arms. Rather than stand here, watching the watchers, I’m going to do some torchwork.”
--Tanita S. Davis, Happy Families
Each beginning raises questions: what prompts the desire for change that Sales describes, the fury that has shattered Grace's character, the shiver of Davis's narrator? Where is the rash promise of Pearce's character going to take her? What fallout will there be for the students at Vivian's fictional school? How will all these characters change? What is meant by "the end" (Pearce), "torchwork" (Davis), "a person who makes sense" (Sales)?
A beginning can burst upon us, or it can whisper in our ears. It introduces questions, hints at fears and desires. Whether the urgency is overt or subtle, it is there, the energy that will carry writer and reader through hundreds of pages. When I get lost in the writing of a story, I try to remember what compelled me to start it in the first place, what made the “heart within me burn.” A beginning says, “Listen. This is important. You need to know what happens next.”