Write Your First Lines Last

Don’t expect whatever you write first to open your story. Initial scribbles often start the writing process but not the actual prose.

I’m a professional secret keeper. People tell me things. Intimate details about addiction, sex, and all sorts of shame, blame and regret. Maybe it’s because I try to practice compassionate listening. Maybe it’s an ancestral spell I inherited from my Italian matriarchal eye-givers. Maybe it’s because I have secrets of my own, and they can smell the loss-pheromones ooze from my pores. Regardless of the source, I tell these gut-spillers to write about their eversions, and they often tell me they don’t know where to start. Then I let them in on my biggest writer’s secret: Never start at the beginning.

Writing isn’t linear. Story unravels in segments to be rearranged over and over until the puzzle fits and the plot unveils seamlessly. Such ingenuity appears effortless and yet it’s totally constructed with great care, often under the influence of enough caffeine to chew through your own jaw and so little sleep your eyes bleed. That was an exaggeration, but here’s the truth: Whatever I write first — whether it’s for an article, blog post, essay, fiction or script — never opens the story and could end up anywhere, including the trash.

Write your heart out when you start. Trace it like a hand-turkey on the page. Give life to the valves and veins of longing, fear and embarrassment. Spew your soul, stripped and flawful, along the blood lines. Write like no one will see you naked. This is a version of free-writing, and I fully recommend it. Not all of it sticks, but it will get you to where you need to go: beyond all the cobwebs of self-doubt and to the flagstone pathway leading to your story’s core.

Now cut it up and put it back together again and again. Write between the patches. Stitch in the setting, mood and characterization. Toss whatever doesn’t serve your overall message.

Now you’re ready to craft the opening. Let it synthesize the voice, mood and genre. Maybe it hints at the problem that gets wilder as the clock ticks. Whatever you do, it needs to match your story.

And that’s why I never write my first lines first: I can’t until I have a story to reflect.

This post was inspired by a listicle about story openers featured on Writer’s Digest: https://www.writersdigest.com/improve-my-writing/10-ways-to-start-your-story-better

3 thoughts on “Write Your First Lines Last

  1. Good points. When I was writing one or more concert reviews a week I learned (in those IBM Selectric, pre-cut-and-paste days) to write out my lead and second paragraph by hand, then type the second paragraph to start the piece. I found that I write really good leads…if I use the “second” paragraph first. Minor point; it’s “pores” not “pours” (I hate it when a copy editor catches me at one of those).

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