A teacher once told me that you’ll find two types of beginnings when it comes to writing anything, whether it’s a poem, memoir, short story or nonfiction piece.
- The place where the writer begins writing.
- The place where the story actually begins.
If you feel as though you’re beginning isn’t quite right, consider whether you’re starting in the right place.
Start with a punch. Well not literally, although it depends on the story, but think about how you can grab the readers’ attention in your first few pages. Consider how you can raise a question in the readers’ minds that must be answered (then be sure to answer it).
Nancy Kress, author of Elements of Fiction Writing – Beginnings, Middles & Ends,says writers have about three paragraphs in a short story and three pages in a novel to catch the reader’s (or agent’s or editor’s) attention. She explains how we can make our openings interesting and original through character, conflict, specifics, and credibility.
In our very first sentences, we can hint at some future conflict or change in our story.
Kress says that we don’t have to have a body hurtling from a window—there are many subtler ways to introduce conflict. Randomly choosing a few of my favorite books from my bookshelf, I’ve copied their first sentences below:
“Running with the Demon,” by Terry Brooks.
“Hssst! Nest!” His voice cut through the cottony layers of her sleep with the sharpness of a cat’s claw.
I like the specifics here and the contrast of “cottony layers of sleep” with “sharpness of a cat’s claw.” We have the feeling that something interesting is going to happen. Read more
One of the pleasures of reading a new book is sinking into the world of the story. But almost nothing annoys me more than being ripped out of my dream state by having to back up and re-read the beginning of a story to figure out what is going on.
I experienced this recently and in my quest to be a better writer, I decided to analyze a few stories to figure out what was pulling me out of the story world. Here’s what I discovered:
The author introduces too many characters at once. Readers have a hard time keeping the characters straight and knowing their roles in the story because they haven’t had a chance to get to know them yet. Read more
“Listen, Paula. I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost.”
Thus begins Isabel Allende’s heartrending story of the death of her daughter, Paula, who suffered a seizure and fell into an irreversible coma when she was 26 years old.
Hoping that someday her daughter will be able to read her words, Allende began writing as Paula lay in a Madrid hospital. The author deftly weaves the story of her family history, her upbringing, and the history of her country, Chile, with the story of her daughter’s illness. Though Paula: A Memoir is a tragic story of the loss of her child, Allende turns it into a beautiful tribute full of lyrical, mystical, and sometimes humorous writing. Though we suffer with her over her child’s fate, and feel her pain, she eventually leads us to a place of transcendence.
Instead of ending her book with an artificial, tacked-on “happy ending” or a moralistic treatise on “what she learned” from her journey, Allende begins long before the end of the book to show us her turns. Read more
We know the importance of a good beginning. First line, first paragraph, first page is your opportunity as a storyteller to hook your reader, to get them interested enough to want to read more.
Nelson Bentley, wonderful poet and professor at the University of Washington for 40 years, used to say this about poem beginnings, “Give the readers a place to stand, and then you can take them anywhere.” This same advice holds true for all writing.
In journalism, the fives W’s (who, what, where, when, why) and one H (how) is a formula drilled into young journalists for getting the full story. They are instructed to get as many W’s into the lead as possible. But how do we do this in art without turning it into dry, boring facts? Read more
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? Read more