It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.
Whether it’s the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, chapter or act, the beginning of your story must establish time and place, the main players and the normal world they live in. An effective beginning should give enough for the reader to ask questions and care what happens next.
But before you spend hours polishing and perfecting your beginning, please finish your first draft. When you know all about your story, you can more easily choose what will lead your reader into the narrative. And equally important, you’ll have a better sense of the first impression that will best represent your story: its themes, its direction and its heart.
There is no “best way” to begin. Here are 10 ways to consider.
1. In the middle of action (in medias res)
Starting in the middle of a scene puts readers immediately in the world of the story and sets up reader questions. They’ll read on because they’ll want to know why this is happening, who these people are and what happens next.
Example: Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes. (Animal Farm; George Orwell)
Who is Mr. Jones? Is he always drunk? What are pop-holes? Why are these hen-houses important? Where…..?
2. With the inciting incident
Instead of just any action, make it the event that sets the protagonist off on his narrative journey.
Example: He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. (Orlando, Virginia Woolf)
3. Backstory that raises reader questions
Usually it is not a good idea to have backstory early in a story, especially on the first page, but sometimes a short sharp bit of backstory can effectively set up enough reader questions to hook them in further.
Example: Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. (The Blind Assassin; Margaret Atwood)
4. A strong character
A person who is so intriguing, surprising or terrifying that readers must learn more about them. Most often the protagonist, but not always.
Example: I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. (Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides)
5. Begin with the end or close to the end
Often called a circle device, this method offers the end or climax first and then readers want to go back to the beginning to find out how it all happened.
Example: Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez)
“It was a dark and story night…” is touted as one of the worst ways to begin, but many successful stories begin with setting. The secret is to see it through the eyes of the character and have it add to plot or character development or set a mood.
Example: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited. (Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier)
Going contrary to expectation always gets attention. Turning paradigms on their heads opens the way for an explanation that readers will stick around to hear.
Example: On a wintry Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Richard W. D’Souza stood in front of a shelf stacked with gallon jugs labeled Artificial Saliva and Pooled Human Saliva, and spoke about the art of killing. (“Breath Mints: A Hot War for America’s Cool Mouths” By Alex Kuczynski New York Times)
A truism is a statement that is so obviously true that it is almost not worth saying, but using one as a start to a story usually implies that the story to follow is about to prove it untrue, or at least comment on it in some way, and so readers are drawn in to see what the “other take” is.
Example: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice; Jane Austen)
9. Pressing fear, disgust, and other unpleasant buttons
In much the same way that we cannot not look at a train wreck or accident on the highway, people are facinated by situations where they can vicariously experience the unthinkable.
Example: It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. (Fahrenheit 451; Ray Bradbury)
A prologue establishes context and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one. Publishers are not keen on prologues, but in the right genres (e.g. epic fantasy) they have a role to play to help the reader understand the world they are launched into, or to set up an image or incident that will be returned to. If you do use a prologue, keep it short.