I read a lot of book manuscripts, and I’m here to tell you there are some story openers in danger of being used more often than “once upon a time.” Here are some beginnings I see frequently:
• Character waking up
• Character looking out a window and thinking about the weather
• Character thinking about the setting, reviewing the objects in a room
• Character thinking or saying out loud, “This isn’t happening.”
• Character pondering her life, her appearance (while looking in a mirror), or the day ahead in inner monologue
• “When [name] woke up that morning, he never imagined by the end of the day, he would end up [fill in the blank]”
I bet you think I’m going to tell you not to write one of these frequently used story openers.
What I want to emphasize is that they’re oh-so-common. So unless you want to blend into the crowd, if you’re going to use one of these openings in your final work, you’ll want to make sure you’ve executed it effectively—in an uncommon way.
Starting a novel with a cliché (“It was love at first sight”) worked out well for Joseph Heller in Catch 22, and the waking-from-a-dream opener (“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams…”) made The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka a classic.
But here’s something else.
Did you notice that all the openings I listed have a character sitting and thinking alone? I have a theory about that. What’s the person who is writing doing? Sitting and thinking alone! Maybe that’s why these openings occur to writers so easily.
Here’s a suggestion.
Write the sitting and thinking opening—if that’s what comes to you immediately—to get your writing pump primed. It’s a way for you to get started, a way to initiate your flow of words and ideas. It’s a way to begin solving the problems that writing a story present.
Getting it right the first time isn’t important. Getting started and getting in the groove are very important.
Eventually, after you’ve completed a draft and during revision, I’ll bet you’ll find where your story really begins. And I’ll bet you find it begins at some point after all that sitting and thinking.