How to write a compelling incipit?

We have said it many times: if you want to be a writer you have to start writing.

Yeah, but where to start? How to start?

Often the beginning of a novel is the most difficult part, both because the ideas seem to suddenly disappear from your head, and because the reader, more or less consciously, will get an idea of ​​your book from those first few lines.

So let’s see how you can write an incipit for your book that keeps the reader attached to your pages.

How to write an exciting incipit

You may have done a painstaking work of narrative design before starting to write your book and you know exactly how the plot unfolds, who the characters are, where the narrative joints are located, yet when it comes to standing there to write the first lines, everything becomes terribly difficult.

What do I write? What do I start with? What is the best phrase?

The enthusiasm you had before starting to write can get stuck in the swamp of the incipit and the head, so full of ideas before, can seem suddenly empty.

Starting to write is the most difficult part of writing.

Starting to write is the most difficult part of writing.

So how can we overcome this blockade?

First of all, the first advice I can give you is, as always, to refer to the great authors and learn from their example.

So read as many incipits as you can (among the many sites on the web dedicated to literary incipits I recommend incipitario.com, which since 2003 has collected almost five thousand incipits), create your own incipit database, try to understand if there are recurring mechanisms especially which type do you like best.

In fact, the rule is always the same: write the book you would like to read. Starting from the first lines.

Write the book you would like to read. Starting from the first lines.

Take inspiration from the incipits of the great authors

I present to you here some of the most famous incipits in the history of contemporary literature.

Read them thinking about your story and try to imagine if a similar attack fits with your style and the idea you have of your book.

Descriptive incipits

One of the most classic ways to start a story is to open the scene with a description.

Surely you remember “That branch of Lake Como that turns towards noon between two chains of unbroken mountains” and that opens The Betrothed of Alessandro Manzoni, and perhaps, for this scholastic memory, you might think that a descriptive incipit is a choice out fashion, linked to outdated narrative models, and instead you can find valid descriptions even in more modern incipits.

Dense forests of spruce firs overlooked the two banks of the frozen river. A recent wind had ripped the white mantle of ice from the branches and in the light of dusk the trees seemed to lean against each other, black and menacing.

Jack London, White Fang

To get to the end of the alley, the sun’s rays must descend straight ahead of the cold walls, kept apart by force of arches that cross the strip of blue sky.

Italo Calvino, The path of spider nests

On the beautiful coast of the French Riviera, halfway between Marseille and the Italian border, stands a pink hotel, big and proud. Deferential palms refresh the pink facade, and in front of it there is a short dazzling beach.

Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the night

Information incipit

You can start your story by giving information about the characters:

Malpelo was called that because he had red hair; and he had red hair because he was a mischievous and wicked boy, who promised to be a good-for-nothing. So everyone at the quarry of the red sand called him Malpelo; and even his mother, having always heard him say that way, had almost forgotten her first name.

Giovanni Verga, Rosso Malpelo

He was an old man who fished alone on a sailboat in the Gulf Stream and had eighty-four days now that he didn’t catch a fish.

Ernest Hemingway, the old man and the sea

or on the narrator, thus explaining what will be the point of view from which the story will be told.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Declarative incipits

You can start your story with a statement:

  • All happy families resemble each other, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
  • Lev Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  • Better still if it is an absolute truth, given as incontrovertible.
  • It is well known and universally recognized that a bachelor in possession of a solid patrimony should be in search of a wife.
  • Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • Regulatory incipits

If you want to start your story in a very special way, you can even choose to start with a regulation, a list of rules or instructions.

  • United States Post Office in Los Angeles, California
  • RULES OF CONDUCT
  • Management, 1 January 1970
  • Memorandum No. 742

The attention of all executives is drawn to the Rules of Conduct listed in Paragraph 742 of the Post Office Manual, and to the Employee Conduct outlined in Paragraph 744 of the Post Office Manual.

Charles Bukowski, Post Office

In reality with this particular incipit, Bukowski succeeds with a single blow at telling us where and when the story unfolds and putting us on the protagonist’s side, because with a shot that would be called “subjective” in the cinema, he puts before us the circular that the character is reading, as if our eyes were his.

Narrative incipits

You can start your story by staging an episode, more or less lively, depending on the literary genre to which your book belongs, but aiming in any case to attract the reader in the spiral of action.

When my mother was pregnant with me, as she later told me, a group of hooded knights of the Ku Klux Klan came galloping at night past our house in Omalia, Nebraska. After having surrounded the building, they shouted to my father to go out: they were all armed with rifles and carbines. My mother went to the front door and opened it.

Malcom X, Autobiography

I was about to overcome Salvatore when I heard my sister screaming. I turned around and saw her disappear, swallowed by the grain that covered the hill.

  • I didn’t have to take it with me, mom would have made me pay for it dear.
  • I stopped. I was sweating. I took a breath and called her.
  • Niccolò Ammaniti, I’m not afraid
  • Meta-narrative incipits

You can start your story by knocking down the “fourth wall”, before that, actually having created it.

Make sure that the narrator speaks directly with the reader: in this way the narrator proves to know that the reader is there, “listening”, and at the same time the reader understands without a shadow of a doubt that behind the story, to this that it is told and how, there is the narrator.

The one who speaks to the reader can be the omniscient narrator:

Once upon a time…

“A king!” My little readers will immediately say.

No, guys, you were wrong. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood. It was not a luxury wood, but a simple piece of pile, the kind that in winter are put in stoves and fireplaces to light the fire and to heat the rooms.

Carlo Collodi, The Adventures of Pinocchio

or the protagonist himself, from whose point of view the story will be told:

Call me Ishmael. A few years ago – no matter how many exactly – having little or no money in my pocket and nothing special to interest me on the ground, I thought of giving myself to navigation and seeing the watery part of the world.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

You can’t know anything about me without having read a book called “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, but it doesn’t matter much. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, who usually told the truth, or almost. Sometimes he exaggerated a little, but generally he told the truth. It is already something.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

or a secondary character that stands, so to speak, next to the reader as an observer of the story that is about to be staged:

I am the doctor of whom in this novel we sometimes speak with unflattering words. Who of psycho-analysis means, knows where to place the antipathy that the patient dedicates to me.

Italo Svevo, The conscience of Zeno

Dialogue incipits

You can start your story with a dialogue. Choosing this type of incipit allows you to immediately put the characters on stage with their characters, their behaviors, their language.

  • “Christmas won’t be Christmas without presents,” Jo muttered, lying on the carpet.
  • “What a terrible thing to be poor!” Meg sighed, glancing at her old dress.
  • “It is not fair, in my opinion, that some girls have a lot of good things and nothing else,” added little Amy, sniffing with offense.
  • “We have Dad and Mum, and we have ourselves,” said Beth, in the tone of someone happy, from her corner.

The four young faces, illuminated by the fire of the fireplace, lit up at the consoling words, but they went dark again when Jo added sadly: “Daddy, we don’t have it and we won’t have it for a long time.” He did not say ″ perhaps never again, ″ but each, in his heart, thought it, going with his mind to his father far away on the battlefields.

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

If you choose to start your story with a dialogical incipit, make sure, however, that the dialogue is brief, just a few lines for each character, as it did here at Alcott, because longer conversations should inevitably refer to facts and situations that the characters already know and the reader does not, with the risk of making him feel excluded, rather than involved.

Incipit in medias res

You can start your story by entering immediately into the heart of the story, without preambles or premises. You will then give explanations (if any), but the effect of the reader’s involvement is assured.

Gregor Samsa, awakened one morning from agitated dreams, found himself transformed, in his bed, into a huge unclean insect.

Franz Kafka, The metamorphosis

Half of the boys were immersed in slime to their ankles, while the other five were on the muddy ground a few meters away. For a few moments they remained astonished and speechless, until Harry Shipley began to whimper.

Glenn Cooper, The Invasion of Darkness

Incipit with analessi or prolessi

You can start your story with an analessi, that is a flashback, a jump back in time to remember something that the character has already lived, or with a proless, that is an anticipation of what will happen later.

Be careful, however, in both cases it is an incipit to be handled with care, because to make an anticipation or a flashback you really need to know how the whole affair is built.

Not for nothing the examples that I present here are of two masters of literature! 

Many years later, facing the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía would remember that remote afternoon when his father had led him to learn about the ice.

Gabriel Garcìa Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

By the time he graduated from college, John Smith had forgotten all of the bad ice fall on that day in January 1953. It would indeed have been difficult for him to remember even when he finished secondary school. His father and mother never knew anything about it.

Stephen King, The Dead Zone

Other incipits

In addition to the classification based on narratological functions we have done so far, you can have fun dividing the incipits of great authors into categories of your invention.

For example there are religious incipits, in which we start immediately with some prayer or liturgical phrase.

To contextualize the story:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This was in principle with God and the duty of the faithful monk would be to repeat every day with salmodeling humility the only unchangeable event of which the incontrovertible truth can be asserted .

Umberto Eco, The name of the rose

or to give the sense of atmosphere strongly linked to the traditions in which the story will take place:

  • “Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.”
  • The daily recitation of the Rosary was over.
  • Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard
  • Then there are the humorous incipits

Far away, in the forgotten spaces not marked in the geographical maps of the extreme limit of the West Spiral of the Galaxy, there is a small and insignificant yellow sun.

To orbit around it, at a distance of one hundred and forty-nine million kilometers, there is a small, negligible blue-green planet, whose life forms, descended from the apes, are so incredibly primitive that they still believe that digital wristwatches are a great invention.

  • Douglas Adams, Galactic Guide to Hitchhikers
  • “What are you doing?” My wife asked me, seeing me unusually lingering in front of the mirror.
  • “Nothing,” I replied, “I look here, inside my nose, in this nostril. Pressing, I warn a certain dolorino. “

My wife smiled and said:

  • “I thought you were looking at which side hangs on you.”
  • I turned like a dog to which someone had stepped on the tail:
  • “Are you hanging me?” To me? The nose?”
  • Luigi Pirandello, One, none and one hundred thousand

The incipit of inspiration:

Life is made up of small insignificant happiness, like tiny flowers. It’s not just about great things, like studying, love, weddings, funerals. Every day small things happen, so many that you can’t keep them in mind or count them, and among them grains of a barely perceptible happiness are hidden, that the soul breathes and thanks to which it lives.

Banana Yoshimoto, A journey called life

The provocative and unsettling incipits:

  • Today the mother is dead. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.
  • Albert Camus, the foreigner
  • It was a joy to set fire to it.
  • Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

If you really want to hear this story, you may want to know first of all where I was born and how my childhood was disgusted and what my parents and company were doing before I arrived, and all those crap at David Copperfield, but I don’t really want to talk about it.

J.D. Salinger, The Young Holden

Since for all authors the beginning of a story is the most difficult part, while for all readers it is the most important part, here Salinger finds an original solution to the problem by telling us that he knows he should say certain things, because we we expect it, but he, frankly, doesn’t want to. Can we perhaps oblige him?

The self-evident incipits, because sometimes the best way to start a story is simply to say that a story is beginning:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel “If a night in the winter a traveler”. Take it easy. Recollect. Move away from you every other thought. Let the world around you fade into indistinctness. The door is better to close it; there is always the television on. Say it immediately to the others: “No, I don’t want to watch television!” He raises his voice, otherwise they won’t hear you: “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed! »Maybe they didn’t hear you, with all that noise; say it louder, he shouts: “I’m starting to read the new Italo Calvino novel!” Or if you don’t want to say it; we hope they leave you alone.

Italo Calvino, If a winter night a traveler

And even incipit with preterition (do you remember this figure of rhetoric?), In which the author says he does not want to say something that instead says something like:

I don’t know if it is really worth telling all the stories of the Roman people since the beginning of Rome. And even if I were convinced of it, I would not dare to state it openly.

Tito Livio, Ab urbe condita

Evidently tormented by this initial doubt, at the end Livio on the history of Rome of books he wrote well 142!

But does it really start from the beginning?

This brief series of examples makes you understand that there are so many incipits. Each author has his own way of attacking history and enchaining the reader’s attention.

The beginning is certainly the first part that the reader reads of a book (although in reality there are some readers who enjoy reading the ending before starting on page 1!), But this does not mean that it must necessarily be the first part to write.

The beginning of a story is the first part to read, but this is not the first part to be written.

So if you also get stuck with the front pages of your book and don’t know how to start, know that a good opening actually can only come about once you’ve completed your first draft.

So don’t worry if your first lines don’t convince you and you don’t seem to be effective enough in the first chapter in general.

Write it as it comes, with the sole purpose of moving forward. Remember that your first draft reads only you (or just the people to whom you decide to read it) and therefore it won’t be from those pages that readers will evaluate your work.

Especially if this is your first book, in fact, most likely once you get to the end you will realize that you prefer to start in a completely different way from what you had originally thought and, indeed, you will wonder how did you not think before? to the new solution.

But it is so: to understand where the story of a book takes you, you must first write it.

To understand where the story of a book takes you, you must first write it.

This is especially true for novels and fiction books, but also for writing manuals and technical texts, where everything seems clear and where it seems obvious to start with the presentation of the topic, writing a good opening letter is not always easy.

Sometimes the content is valid, but the style is not, because it is affected by the heaviness of the first steps.

It does not matter. You write and get out of the swamp of the incipit before you can.

During subsequent revisions you will reread your incipit with new eyes and you will have plenty of time to modify it.

You can change the first version of your incipit with a new one or you can even test different variants of the incipit by making them read to beta readers or to readers of your confidence to understand which one works the most.

But all this is possible only after completing your first draft. So write!

Two Truths and a Lie

Finally, to stimulate your creativity, I propose you a creative writing exercise that was suggested to me many years ago in one of the first courses I attended and which I still find effective.

Write an incipit consisting of three short sentences:

• the first sentence must be a truth

For example: My cat is called Fred.

Choose a simple phrase that describes an apparently trivial or obvious element of your life.

• the second sentence must be another truth

For example: When I’m at my desk, Fred slumbers on the couch behind me.

Choose a simple phrase, better connected to the first one.

• the third sentence must be a lie

For example: Yesterday Fred suddenly spoke to me.

Invent a false phrase that is very far from the reality of the first two and that creates a feeling of estrangement with respect to them.

The lie, especially if it is sensational, will lead your story to an unexpected course. The normality of your two initial truths will be completely distorted.

So follow this new path by writing everything that comes to your mind and see where the initial lie takes you.

It may not be the beginning of your book, but at least you will have unlocked your creative vein.

If you like try this exercise and write me what came out below in the comments. I will read you very willingly!

Now that I’m done, I ask you a small favor.

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