First Lines: Starting with a Bang

Monday, May 15, 2017

I stared at the gun in my hand before transferring my gaze to the dead author on the floor. She deserved to die. It was the only way to stop her from beginning her next romance with yet another car chase.

One approach to first lines is to begin with a bang—a startling event that captures a reader’s or viewer’s attention—such as an abduction or a car chase. Or it can be the literal bang of a gunshot. This type of opening is often used with action adventures, but it isn’t limited to that genre.

For an example from literary fiction, consider the opening paragraph from The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (as translated by David Wyllie).

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.

If waking up to discover you’ve been changed into a giant insect isn’t a startling event, then nothing is. The bang in The Metamorphosis is both unexpected and gigantic.

But the bang doesn’t have to be big to work. Here is the beginning of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring—I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided my poetry is so bad that I mustn’t write any more of it.

In these two examples, the first line is the one that creates the bang. And fortunately for the reader, the rest of the paragraph keeps the interest going.

So why doesn’t every story start with a bang? Because it doesn’t always work. Like every other type of opening, this approach has its pitfalls.

First, it’s too easy to start with an event that has nothing to do with the story. I’ve read many manuscripts and even some published books that fall into this trap. Somebody told the writer to start with a thrilling adventure, so the writer forces a car chase or a murder into the opening of a gentle romance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit.

But, you may ask, what about Raiders of the Lost Ark? Doesn’t that start with an unrelated adventure? Yes and no. The action sequence that begins the movie is not part of the actual story line, but it is related. First, it tells us something about Indiana Jones’ character. Second, it is consistent with and sets the mood for what follows. For these reasons and possibly others, it works. The car chase or murder that begins the gentle romance can’t claim those connections.

The second pitfall of opening with a bang is the temptation to begin the story in the wrong place. I was writing a women’s fiction novel about a woman who idolized her father until she discovered that he was a swindler. She doesn’t forgive him until she thinks he was killed in a car crash. The accident was the most dramatic event in the story, so I tried to start there. Unfortunately, I would have had to tell most of the story as a flashback. A few writers can pull it off, but I’m not one of them.

If your story allows you to start with a bang naturally, then do it. But if not, there are plenty of other choices.

Next week we’ll talk about using the first lines to introduce an intriguing character.

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