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It was the best of lines, it was the worst of lines: On starting your story

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859

Dickens’ magnificent opening sentence to A Tale of Two Cities is rightly one of the most celebrated in all literature.  He’s dealing with huge topics – states, empires, monarchs, cities, economies, good, evil: in other words, people – and his first line captures all of that succinctly, entertainingly and above all engagingly.  Subject to his litany of ambiguity and contradiction, Dickens’ reader is instantly seduced: you can’t help yourself but read on.  And, since this is Dickens, it just gets better from there.

Photo of a pen writing on paper

None of us are Dickens of course, and most of us are not (yet) writing novels, but that does not mean that we should neglect the knotty problem of the first line.  Everything we write or say must start somewhere.  Even if it is the only line – a tweet, a text message, a rushed email response – everything has a first line.  And for anything longer than a one-liner, that first line is vitally important.  The first line sets a tone, creates a world, plots a direction.

But on a daily basis, how much attention do we give to these all-important first lines?  Do we prepare for them?  Do we warm up and if so, what, how?  Do we practice?  Do we pause to think about them at all?

Usually, and for entirely understandable and practical reasons, the answer to all of these questions is ‘no’.  This is partly because in our busy lives of constant communication how could we possibly take the time to carefully and artfully compose everything we write.  Surely that would be impossible?  Well, maybe – I’ll come back to this.  But it is also because we don’t think of the bulk of our messages to the world as ‘stories’.  A story – as distinct from, say, a message, a memo, an email, an article, a mission statement, a report – is something we associate with fiction, make-believe, entertainment: fun and folk-tales rather than commerce and corporate organisation.

It will not come as a surprise when I take issue with this separation and point out that all the forms of messaging listed above are in one form or another stories.  A story can be told in three words or three hundred thousand.  Every mission statement is an aspirational tale: ‘if only we could…’.  Every single email – the hundreds of pestilential missives cluttering your inbox – is a story of one kind or another: telling, selling, imploring, persuading, condemning, implying.  Even reports that purport to be entirely ‘factual’ deploy a range of tools and techniques that corral those facts towards highly subjective conclusions.  Not without irony, the old saw that ‘the facts speak for themselves’ is – in fact – a seductive falsehood.

So, if all these utterances are stories, our problem is inverted.  The issue is no longer whether we can afford take time and effort over our first lines, but how we can possibly continue to ignore them?

With this in mind, colleagues at Roffey Park Institute have in recent weeks been trialling a new course dedicated to the first line.  The purpose of the module – the first of a series devoted to the art of Storytelling for Leaders – is to open up and explore what needs to be done in preparation for that all-important opening statement.  A succession of experiential exercises and reflexive games – devised in collaboration with our partner company Sounder Ltd. – introduces participants to those elements of storytelling that most contribute to an effective first line.  These range from awareness of the physical voice – closely linked to the written voice – to the art of creative questioning, the gestural and emotional voice, and to the way in which that opener might be pitched.  We spend quite a while speaking only in gibberish – not as far from real life as one might hope.

Having coaxed our participants through all this, reflecting together on its business-relevance on the way, our learners finally, joyfully get to write their own first line: each one a mini-masterpiece.  The module does not prescribe what your masterpiece looks like – don’t expect some pre-digested formula for the ‘right’ first line – but is designed to open up choices.  What do you want to say?  What does your world sound like? Where do you want to go with this?  With practice these simple but powerful skills will become part of your daily expression.  You won’t have to spend hours carefully composing your first lines: you’ll always be able to find the right words for the right moment.  And if you get your story right from the start, your grateful readers will also get it.  The right words work miracles.

If you want to release your inner Dickens, get in touch by email or telephone 01293 851644.

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