An opening paragraph for an autobiography functions a great deal like the thesis in an essay. It focuses the work to follow, it begins the pattern of narrative events you want to use and it allows you to choose what events of your life you want to talk about. You write an opening paragraph by first deciding what you want to say about yourself; a good way to begin is studying openings of other autobiographies.
Openings of Famous Autobiographies
Malcolm X in his autobiography's opening describes his pregnant mother facing a horde of Klansmen; his purpose is to show the hardships of the courageous family he arose from. Actor David Niven in "The Moon's a Balloon" begins with "Her name was Nessie" and proceeds to describe a beloved prostitute; Niven not only sets a scandalously informal tone, but avoids the "I was born" openings of many celebrity works. Ben Franklin's autobiography is addressed to his son William; Franklin thus leaves his life story in the hands of others.
Outline in Anecdotes
Autobiography is a revelatory art, which is why your selection of an opening will set the tone of your self-disclosures. You should have an outline for your autobiography prepared before you begin; this outline will largely dictate the nature of your opening paragraph. One option is to list people who've meant a lot to you, and note your favorite anecdotes about them; in this instance, your opening paragraph, like David Niven's, takes a person who is central to your life and tells a story about them. Your "self" is revealed in another's tale.
Outline with Life Events
A second outlining method is to list the major events of your life, in chronological order if desired, and select a childhood event that deeply affected you as an opening paragraph. It might be the time you were most frightened, felt most loved and cherished, accomplished or failed at something that meant a lot to you, or felt alone. Any of these are excellent opening personal stories to begin an autobiography; remember to include the details of the event, the people involved and particularly your feelings at the time. Your "self" in this case is revealed through your emotional responses.
Outline with Family History
Like Malcolm X, you can choose to focus your outline on events from your family, choosing anecdotes about relatives' adventures before your birth; your opening paragraph, telling their story, should make clear how they contributed to what you are today. Your "self" came from these ancestors. Whether you explore past heritage, present personal stories or tales of others, remember that your opening paragraph is part of a work that is meant to reveal you -- as much of you as you want to reveal.
- Center for Autobiographic Studies: Types of Autobiographic Writing
- Autobiography of Malcolm X; Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley
- The Moon's a Balloon; David Niven
- Penn State University: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
- San Mateo Community College: Autobiography
- Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images