So Many Ways to Start a Story

Book open with magic, underneath Once upon a time ...

I’ve been studying first lines and first pages of memoirs. I’ve rewritten mine at least a million times. Well, maybe not that many, but at least many times as I’ve rewritten the intro for this blog. We all know that openings matter. People need to be wowed to keep reading.

Readers use the Look Inside feature on Amazon or flip open the first page in a book and start reading. If they are bored by the second paragraph of an article and stop reading, why would they keep reading a book that doesn’t immediately pull them in? Here are three common themes I saw in the opening lines of memoirs.

First Lines As Set-up

“My father would never describe himself as a poet.”

The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father
Kao Kalia Yang

“For thirty-three years I had a hole in my heart and I did not know it.”

Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember
The Stroke that Changed My Life
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

Both of these lines set up what the book will be about. In The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father, if he doesn’t describe himself that way, the book must be about how Yang, his daughter, will make the argument that he is.

Hyung-Oak Lee is talking about a physical and metaphorical hole. This line is a bit unexpected for a book about stroke but sets up a theme of the book of how the stroke taught her to live differently and begin to protect her heart

A Pivotal Memory, Or Is It?

“My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.”

The Liars’ Club: A Memoir
Mary Karr

“My strongest memory is not a memory.”

Tara Westover

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both of these wildly popular memoirs started with a memoir. Westover has said she read Karr, as most memoirists have, to get a sense of how to write nonfiction. Both endured tragic, unorthodox upbringings. Starting with a memory or a phantom memory that haunts the writer is a strong way to start a book that covers such deep topics.

The other important thing about both of these is that they use the word “memory.” We know that a memoir is the author’s memory, but in the case of both of these authors it’s important for them to classify their memories with the word since they are writing about such terrible things that I believe adding the qualifier word of “memory” makes it more powerful and believable to the reader and any potential disbelievers.

Something Jaw-Dropping or Heartbreaking

“My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.”

Stephanie Land

“I had lost almost thirty pounds by the time I was referred to a gastrointestinal surgeon at Duke University Hospital.”

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved
Kate Bowler

Both of these lines make me want to keep reading because I need to know why. Why is Stephanie Land in a shelter? Why hasn’t Kate Bowler received help before she lost that much weight?

These beginnings also go along with many that started with something that already happened, or where we are thrown into the middle of something, such as these two:

On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death
Maggie O’Farrell

The call comes when John is away at a conference in New Orleans.

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying
Nina Riggs

Do you read memoir? What are your favorite lines? Have you noticed any patterns?

Stay in touch.


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