Today we answer the musical question “Where do I begin?”
If you want to tell stories on the web, you’ve got about two seconds to capture your reader. You have to make that first sentence connect, hard. The purpose of the first sentence is to get people to read the second one.
So where do you start?
When we speak our stories, we tend to start at the beginning of time. With, say, Pangaea, or our mother’s womb. Your first draft probably contains paragraphs and paragraphs of set-up before your main event.
One of the easiest ways to heighten the impact of your story, then, is to start later than you think you should. I wrote a post once about how I nearly soiled myself on a plane because I was so nervous about performing my exit row duties. Those windows look super heavy and hard to maneuver, y’all! I sweated in my seat, unable to enjoy my extra three millimeters of leg room, rehearsing how I would unlatch and pitch that 40-pound chunk of plane AND SAVE EVERYONE.
There are lots of places to enter a story like that. I could have started with the reason I was traveling to set up why I was on the plane in the first place. I could have gone back in time and framed my story with some childhood incident to illuminate my motivation for being so freaking anxious.
Or I could have started as I arrived at the exit row itself.
I chose the last entry point, with a short sentence followed by a sentence fragment that read, simply: “I dropped into the window seat, on the wing. The exit row.”
Why start there? Well, my literary conflict, if I may be so bold, was me versus the plane. Me versus the damned window over the wing, to be precise. In about 600 words, I needed to set that conflict up immediately. In a blog-sized personal essay, there’s no time for lengthy exposition, so you can stop drafting your version of the Star Wars opening credits now. If backstory is essential, you can weave it in later. (I promise, it will work better there.)
The other thing is, really, who cares? Who cares why I’m on the plane or why I’m a nervous Nellie? None of that is relevant to my central conflict.
Begin when the action begins.
If your story isn’t working, try starting it later. Then later still. I’m guessing you’re not typing on my college IBM Selectric, so it’s super easy to move that shit around and test out different beginnings to your tale.
But figuring out where to start your story is only one component of the narrative hook. The second part is choosing the structure and language of the hook itself.
There are as many ways to craft a narrative hook as there are stories and writers. I prefer short first sentences and short initial paragraphs. Sometimes I go crazy and do a single sentence first paragraph.
Readers are fickle. Don’t make them wrestle with two dependent clauses and a weird verb tense right off the bat, unless you’re the next James Joyce. (You’re not.) You have plenty of time to wow them later with your mastery of clever syntax. Simple subject-predicate sentences with little words can have an impact far beyond the sum of their parts.
What should you put in those simple sentences? Oh, cool stuff that makes your reader curious. A compelling line of dialogue, maybe. A rhetorical question. An unlikely fact. You could describe an unusual setting. Introduce an oddball character. Hint at an event that builds tension or suspense. Give the reader a tease so that they want to know more about the people, the places, and the plot of your story.
Then write the second sentence. The purpose of that sentence?
To get your reader to move on to the third.
Want some cool examples of first sentences in personal essays from one of the masters of the craft? Check out “David Sedaris’ Tricks to Great First Sentences” at The Copybot.
Want to practice crafting your own narrative hooks with my feedback? Sign up for my fall creative nonfiction boot camp 30 Days to Your Best Blog Post Ever.