Five simple words to begin a novel

“Once upon a time” no longer works, we are past the fairy tale age, so how and why does a writer start chapter one. Writers are told to make the first paragraph interesting, give a hook, something to make the reader move to the 2nd paragraph. Some writers think that means  a slam bang opening, or beginning in the middle of some compelling mystery. Writers are free to choose their own opening, but . . .

Consider the simplicity of a single sentence. The first paragraph of Charles Bukowski’s “Post Office” is an example. He begins with five words. Bukowski writes, ” It began with a mistake.” Notice he did not say who made a mistake, not he, not her, not anybody, just ‘it.’ So what is ‘it’?  What is the mistake? What was the result of the mistake? How did the mistake affect the characters?  ‘It’ must be an action, don’t you think. Something happened that in the end was a mistake. Could the mistake have  been averted, or was it something innocent that turned out bad? There is no action, there is no beginning in the middle of something, there is no tension between hero and adversary.

Just five simple words.

Those five words bring up lots of questions and aren’t you curious to find out what the mistake was? Something bad is bound to happen, after all there was a mistake.

Writers too often try to overdo everything, including a novels opening. Like a young baseball pitcher trying to impress a manger by throwing too hard with no plan for the pitch a writer tries to hard to impress. Sentences overflowing with steroidal adverbs meant to dazzle, instead fizzle. The best thing a writer can do, the very best thing-yes I just used ‘very’-but it works here-is to get out of the way, not only of your writing, but of the characters, of the story, of everything. Writers should not draw attention to themselves, but be invisible.

Thus the simplicity of ‘It began with a mistake.’ Bukowski was not trying to impress, he was luring you into the story. And that is impressive.


3 thoughts on “Five simple words to begin a novel

  1. I’ve learned it’s best to start any story by hitting the reader with a baseball bat. Just throw them right into the story as if they walked in on it at an awkward moment. The Parker novel “Firebreak” begins with this line:

    “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”

    Well, THAT got my attention.


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