On Writing Beginnings: Sol Stein, Stephen King, Lewis Carroll, and a Bit of James Michener

Must have been a great beginning.
I used names of some of the world's best-known authors for the title of this post to be sure search engines would find it. I also used the words on writing for reasons which will be clear. Bear with me for a few sentences—all right, paragraphs—and I will get to my point. (I wouldn’t try this opening line with a publisher or editor, but it works for this post.) 

Although the authors I fuss about below wrote fiction, the principle of beginnings applies to life-story writing. We can learn from their examples, including hypocrisy. And they are big targets.

A friend loaned me a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft. He said every writer and wannabe writer should own it. I’m not a fan of King, but his success and reputation tell me he is an excellent writer and thus should be an effective teacher of writing. My jury is out on that until I finish the book.

My friend's recommendation caused me to think of Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing, which I heard of but had not read. I know nothing of Stein’s works, so I searched for them on Amazon.com (I know, it's easy.) 

Sol Stein 
An Amazon.com blurb at Stein’s Writing said he was the bestselling author of The Magician. I searched The Magician on Amazon.com and looked inside to the first pages. I was stunned (by the way, that is how King begins his Writing). Stein begins The Magician by going on for three pages describing the weather, geography, culture, and history of the town in which his novel is set. At the bottom of the third page he has dialogue by his main character and we learn about the character; that is where he should have started the book. (James Michener got by with starting Hawaii millions of years ago, as well as lengthy time-starts in his other geographical sagas; but, you and I aren’t Michener.)

In Stein on Writing, the second chapter—yes, second chapter—is titled Come Right In: First Sentences, First Paragraphs, in which I suppose he gives advice on how to begin by grabbing the reader’s interest and keeping it. His first chapter, for what it’s worth, is on the job of the writer. Huh? Better if it were the last chapter. What’s up with him? I checked Amazon.com for first pages of several Stein novels. Z-z-z-z-z. Stephen King he is not, nor James Patterson nor Mary Higgins Clark.

A little more and I will get to my point.   

Stephen King 
King’s Writing has three forewords, unusual for the number and unusual he wrote them; a foreword usually is written by someone else, while an introduction usually is written by the author. Each of his forewords has an engaging first line. Following the forewords is a part he calls C.V. in the Kindle edition (not titled in the print edition). C.V. stands for curriculum vitae, a name for academic resumes. He begins his C.V. with, “I was stunned by Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liars’ Club ... she is a woman who remembers everything about her early years.”

After the C.V. comes Chapter 1, which begins: “My earliest memory is of imagining I was someone else—imagining that I was, in fact, the Ringling Brothers Circus Strongboy.”

In truth, then, King has five beginnings, all with first lines enticing readers to come on in, this is going to be fun.

In checking the first pages of a handful of King’s books on Amazon.com, he always begins with something interesting, dramatic, bold, or intriguing that draws the reader in. 

Lewis Carroll 
Near the end of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, White Rabbit prepared to read a convoluted indictment of the Prince of Hearts who was accused of stealing tarts. “But, Majesty,” White Rabbit asked the queen, “Where do I begin?” The queen replied, “Begin at the beginning.” For writers, that means begin with the action, even if you begin in the middle. One piece of advice I heard or read: Begin with the activity that made a difference to your lead character, as that is what drives your story.

I recommend that approach to students in my memoir-writing class and hope I adhere to it in my articles, blog posts, books, and presentations; I try to be more enticing than clever. King and many other successful writers do it in fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. We can learn good memoir-writing techniques from fiction writers (some editors and publishers categorize memoir as fiction); take-aways include engaging start, strong middle, and satisfying end; plot, characterization, scene, voice, and dialogue. 

I invite you to weigh in with your comments. How strongly do you practice beginning your story with the incident that made a difference? Not just the start of your book, but the start of chapters and scenes? Are first sentences and first paragraphs all that important, or am I reaching for straws? I especially would like to know whether you have read King or Stein on writing and your thoughts on their approaches, before I buy their books or even check them out of the library.

I hope my opening paragraph grabbed your attention and caused you to read on. Thanks for staying with me.

For more on beginnings see my review of Barnaby Conrad's Best Beginnings.

What have been your experiences with opening sentences and paragraphs? How do you practice great beginnings in your writing?

Photo courtesy morguefile.com.


  1. Good stuff, Wayne. After writing a rough draft and letting it marinate, I usually rewrite my opening sentence or paragraph, for example in blog posts,which is what I do most often nowadays. I sometimes find the best opening buried a few paragraphs down, or even toward the end.

    I do notice when other people's blog posts begin with a boring few sentences or even paragraphs. Often I don't continue to read, but sometimes their post title promises enough that I keep reading.


  2. Good technique, Linda. Often we have clearer picture of where our story is going after we've written some of it, whether a few paragraphs, pages, or chapters.

  3. Good post, Wayne, great examples. I have King's book On Writing and I think it's very good. Let me know what you think when you're finished.

  4. Will do, Yvonne. I'm working my way through it. What in his book did you find most helpful to your writing?