They say you only get one chance to make a first impression and the beginning of your story is your first impression. You want to “hook” a reader, to grab them and make them interested enough to read the rest of the story. That sounds like a lot, but don’t stress about it. We’ll look at some ways to start a story and some things to do and not to do.
Where to Begin
As I often say, writing does not have any rules, but it has a lot of almost-rules. One of these is that you should start your story as close to the end as possible. That means that you should not include anything that is not important to the story.
Take, for example, my latest book Stanley and Amber in Southeast Asia. The story starts with them on the airplane just about to arrive in Vietnam. I could have started it weeks before, when they were at home planning the trip and buying the tickets, but the title is in Southeast Asia, so I wanted to start it when they were actually there.
On the other hand, I could have started it later when they were in the airport in Vietnam, but I wanted to show them looking out the window at the lights of the huge city as they flew in, which is more interesting than an airport (which are mostly all the same anyway). The point is, it is up to you where you start your story but think about why you are starting it where you are. Can you start the story farther ahead in time? If not, why not?
How to Begin
So what should we say at the beginning of the story? Obviously something interesting and important to the story. Here are some different ways. I will include the first lines of some books as examples.
The Main Character
The main character in your story is usually the most important thing in your story, so it is a good place to start. This is especially true if your story is more about the character growing or changing in some way than action.
“Eleven-year-old Virgil Salinas already regretted the rest of middle school, and he’d only just finished sixth grade.”
Here we are introduced to the main character, Virgil. Right away we know his name, how old he is and a little of the conflict of the story, that middle school is not easy.
The Tale of Despereaux:
“This story begins within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse.”
This starts right at the beginning of the main character Despereaux’s life. Usually you don’t want to go that far back but this story is all about his life and how it totally changes. It also introduces the setting of the story, a castle. Speaking of which…
If you have a very unusual setting or one that is the main point of the story, it would be good to start with that.
“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”
This is a good beginning since it is a mystery. Why isn’t there a lake there? Also, this sets up the main (very unusual) setting of the story and also the conflict of it (although we don’t know that yet). Something unusual like this makes the reader very interested so they want to keep reading.
If there is an object that is very important to your story, you could start by talking about that.
The Graveyard Book:
“The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor.”
This also works to set the tone of the story. We can tell that this is a dark story, about death and violence. Or at least that’s what we will think from this sentence. Also, details like “black bone” are mysterious since bones are not usually black.
Foreshadowing is when you hint at something that will happen later in the story. If a person keeps having doctor’s appointments, it might be foreshadowing that they are very sick, for example.
Of course, at the beginning of a story, we don’t know anything, but you can put some foreshadowing into action or description.
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”
Here, we don’t know anything about the characters or setting, but let’s look at what we do know. We know the person talking (Katniss) usually sleeps with someone (her sister) and that the person has been gone for a while since the bed is cold. This is not very exciting action, but as foreshadowing, it hints that the two people have been close but that they are going to be separated, maybe that the other person is going to die. You won’t get all that from reading that one sentence but it sets the mood as you keep reading.
How Not to Begin
As I said before, the job of a story beginning is to introduce your story and make the reader interested so they keep reading. Here are some ways you should probably not start your story.
Weather is something that happens every day, to everyone (unless you live in a cave or on a space station). It is a very usual thing, so it is not a good way to start a story. It might be used to set the tone of the story (rainy for sad, stormy for scary, sunny for happy) but that has been done so many times, there are better ways to do that. Of course, if it is unusual and important to the story, it might be okay to start with the weather (for example, a story about tornado chasers).
This is stuff like waking up, taking a shower, eating breakfast, and so on. This is not unusual and it is not that interesting. It is best to cut out these things and start with important things. You might notice that in the examples above, The Hunger Games starts with her waking up. In that case, the important part is not her waking up but finding her sister missing. Another (very extreme) example of a story starting with waking up is Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. In that, the first sentence is: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect.” Waking up to find that you have turned into a huge insect is a very unusual way to start a story!
A note on different length stories
I wanted to mention that all the examples I gave above are from books, meaning they are longer stories. It is much easier to take time in a book: in a short story, you do not have as much time to introduce your story. The same ideas are still true but in a shorter story, everything has to be much tighter. Next week I will talk about flash fiction, which are extremely short stories, and I will talk more about this then.
Now it’s your turn
- Think about a story that you have read recently. How did it start? Do you think that was a good beginning or not? If not, how could it be better?
- Think about the last movie you saw (TV shows go on for many episodes, so the rules are a bit different). How did the movie start? Was it a good way to introduce the story and make the viewer interested?
- Look at a story that you have written and ask yourself the same questions about it. How could you make the beginning better?
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.