Writing Your First Line: The Shamanic Induction of Storytelling

Originally published 3 July 2011 Women Writers, Women’s Books.

Have you considered the spiritual implications of creating a powerful first sentence of your book?Yes, it’s the hook that dazzles readers so that they engage and read the rest of your book.  It sets the theme of your work, instantly alluring or provoking readers.  But what’s happening at a deeper level in those opening words that compels readers to commit to stepping into this new world?

In a shamanic context, the first sentence acts as the opening to a ritual, an induction of sorts.

The job of that opening is to create a separation from everyday life, which some refer to as ‘ordinary reality’.  Making that separation is the creation of sacred space, opening a circle, or calling in the directions.  It is the pooling of the highest elements to lay the foundation for the work to come.  This break from the mundane is not only intentional, it’s deliberate.  Everyone needs to step out of routine now and then.  Everyone at some point requires a return to ascetic release, and the powerful setup of your story–regardless of theme–tells your reader that is exactly what lies ahead.  Consider these classic first-liners and how they affect your sense of  time and place:

  • “This is the forest primeval.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline
  • “People ask, ‘How did you get in there?’ What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well.”  Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted
  • “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”  Genesis 1:1, King James Version
  • “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”  Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
  • “You better not never tell nobody but God.” – Alice Walker, The Color Purple

With these or the simple utterance, “Once upon a time,” a new cosmology is created.

You don’t know where the opening is going, but you want to go there.  Creating the willingness in your reader to trust that you will take them on a staggering, potent adventure means suspension on several levels has occurred.  Within ritual as within storytelling, you have created and opened the space.  You have created the segué away from waking into some other reality, into the realm of imagination. Having set stellar space for your Other world, the ritual is the crux of the writing.  In Jung’s Hero’s journey, it is the test or climax.  In shamanic work it is the alchemy for which the space was created.  It’s the place where the elements of your impeccably crafted sacred hook combine with your action.

The artful weaving of these elements sustains the sense of timelessness, suspension of place, and releases resistance to seeing self through another perspective, body type, color, gender, or set of circumstances.  This narrative delivers an enthralling story, weaving in wisdom the reader can then bring back to mundane reality.  In that spellbinding, soul-centered narrative, a story is born.