Test your story’s beginning with these five questions
Writing page one can be daunting considering how important it is to hook readers and reel them into our stories. Beginnings are where we establish a relationship with our readers. We want them to eagerly anticipate the journey we’ve created for them. So what does the beginning of your poem, memoir, novel, or short story telegraph to your reader?
Consider these elements as you begin writing or revising:
1. How can I surprise readers? One way of grabbing readers’ attention is by using contrast, unusual language, or upsetting their established view of something.
2. What question will I answer? Every story — at its heart — has a mystery or question that we the writer must answer. Does your beginning hint at this mystery or question?
3. What tone will my story convey? Maybe the protagonist in your novel is sarcastic or smart-alecky or maybe casual or upper-crust formal. Convey this from the start as a way of connecting readers with your main character. You can also set a tone by using a distinctive narrative voice.
4. What mood do I want the reader to sense? In this excerpt of the first five sentences of The Road, author Cormac McCarthy sets a mood with his poetic sentences, limited punctuation, and description of darkness.
“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none.”
5. What is the story’s larger meaning and how can I convey it? Is it about redemption? Love? Loss?
In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien communicates the burden of war by writing about the emotional and physical weight of what his characters carried, literally and figuratively.
“Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover.”
If you can capture your readers’ interest in the first few pages of your story, that just may be a sign you’ll catch the attention of a publisher.