“How do I begin?” The process of story creation is mysterious. Where do our story ideas come from? From where do our characters emerge? At their core, our stories are born out of an impulse to make order from chaos.
Stories reveal a transformation, a new way of seeing things. For example, notice how we dream in archetypes. Primal forces often fill our dreams: the killer, the nurturer, the lover, the wise old man, the mysterious stranger, the innocent. It is through these primal forces that our subconscious seeks to make meaning of our lives and to resolve seemingly intractable problems.
Our characters are functions of this search. They exist as a means of illustrating the journey from fear to love, from revenge to forgiveness, from ignorance to wisdom. The writer’s job is to track this journey in a truthful and compelling way that leads to a transformation.
Plot vs. Theme
There is a difference between plot and theme. Plot is what happens, while theme conveys our story’s underlying meaning. In a wholly satisfying story, our theme is in service to the plot and not the other way around.
Clarifying a theme is like staring into the sun. Looking at it head on blinds us to what we are seeking. If we try to figure it out, we become lost in our idea of the story. My theme might appear to be “the truth sets us free,” and that is terrific, but it is also a broad canvas. If I intellectualize this theme I might end up ruining perfectly fine scenes by killing the conflict in pursuit of my idea.
Our job is not to figure out our story, but to inquire. We are not seeking an answer, but rather, a wider understanding. When we try to figure it out, our story risks becoming ponderous and pedantic.
The Pressure of the First Line
There are an infinite number of approaches to writing a first line. Some authors lead with their voice, while others introduce character, conflict, theme, or just flat out state the premise.
For example, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the story begins with the line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” In this statement the author arouses our curiosity by introducing a number of the elements to follow. We know that this story will likely involve the courting habits of the privileged.
In Grace Krilanovich’s novel The Orange Eats Creeps, she opens with the line: “Dislodged from family and self-knowledge, and knowledge of your origins you become free in the most sinister way.” This line is filled with tension — starting with disconnection from self and loved-ones, and moving to suggest that our genealogy and dependency on loved ones is also the tenuous anchor to our moral compass. That the line addresses the reader directly is subtly confrontational and jarringly intimate.
In Allison Burnett’s darkly comic novel, Death By Sunshine, the narrator B.K. Troop opens with: “When, after a trial of long months, I had at last finished writing my second novel, The House Beautiful, I set down my ballpoint pen and lifted a flute of congratulatory champagne to the mantel mirror.” In one sentence the author establishes the character. We know that B.K. is a writer, a romantic, and hilariously self-absorbed.
There are no rules to an opening line, except that it demands we continue reading.
Trying to figure out an opening line is too much pressure to place on yourself. Rather, when you allow your focus to be on the story as a whole, your opening line tends to find you. If you insist on nailing the opening line before proceeding, you may become paralyzed by the pressure. In fact, you may not have the necessary information to write it yet. Sometimes, through writing your first draft, you discover what the opening line wants to be. If you’re happy with your beginning, that’s terrific, and if not, you can just continue writing the story. Because you may discover that it is the last line to be written.