In the last post I came up with a few questions your readers would be likely to have if they were reading your story – what your story was about, what the main person involved is doing, and why, and where the story takes place – and asked you to try and answer them. Now I am going to and ask you to think more deeply about your answers: I’ll give you some examples to help you see what I mean. This is not the only way to start a story but it’s a useful way to avoid meandering beginnings which are a common problem. We will look at other ways in due course.
Lets keep it fairly simple and say that your story will be about a day spent boating, during which something goes wrong which puts a strain on a relationship. The main character, a young woman, is on holiday with her partner in a lakeside cottage.
Decide what is happening (NOT what HAS HAPPENED but what is happening, RIGHT NOW). You need to show this in the PRESENT because, ideally, you want to leave the past out of your beginning. (If you go into past or future at the beginning it will be for rare and specific reasons which we will come to much later, in a different post.)
So, your story opens with a couple walking down to the edge of a lake where a rowing boat is moored. It’s early but the sun is out. The main character, a young woman, is walking ahead, down to the boat. She is excited, looking forward to rowing the boat herself. Her partner follows more slowly. He is quieter, more moody.
But you won’t be describing the scene like this. You need to SHOW it as a dramatized scene. Readers want feel that they are right inside this world opening up in front of them, not being told about it.
Decide how you will go about doing this. Maybe you will include a brief bit of description to set a calm scene and perhaps something she says, to show her contentment (this will also allow later deviations from the initial scene to seem more dramatic).
When they walked down to the boat, the sun was already out. She could see the hills reflected on the surface of the lake, in shades of pink and brown, blurred softly at the edges like a water colour wash.
“Look at the hills. They’re all fuzzy in places,” she said, “like fur on a mole’s back.”
(NB: I can’t seem to format this like proper dialogue, WordPress justifies it to the left hand edge – apologies)
Decide how you might make your story interesting, or unusual. You can do this by drawing your readers into a world that is very similar to their world but a little askew, to intrigue them. For example, your story might open on a man called Jack, creeping downstairs at four in the morning and removing something from the fridge. After everyone is asleep in the evening, he plans to put it back. He is confident that he won’t be discovered and he only needs to do it for a week. Or, you can do this in more subtle ways, as in the first example, planting small details that make your reader wonder why the young woman’s partner is moody on holiday; on such a sunny day? Why does he hang back? Later you can use changes in this weather and mood to your advantage.
Decide how this first scene will show a change from the initial situation. Perhaps Jack is going downstairs as usual but this morning something is different. Maybe the item he put in the fridge is no longer there. Maybe there is something in its place. Maybe it has simply moved slightly from the place he put it. This unexpected change from what is usual disturbs and unsettles him. You can also do this more gently by having a first scene that reveals something that will inevitably lead to change.
He busied himself with the oars which she sat and watched him. It was so wonderful to be able to sit still and look at him. They were so many things she wanted to say to him; small tender things.
“It’s good to get away, Isn’t it? she said. “Escape for a while? Why don’t we try to cross the lake? Row all the way to the other side?”
“It wouldn’t take very long,” he said. Then we would have to double back.”
“We could stop somewhere and picnic”
“I thought we might go up the river that feeds the lake and see where it goes.”
“It looks very rough where the river meet the lake”
“It’ll be fine, he said. “I’ll row through that patch. You can take over later on.”
There is a more subtle change here. We know she wants to cross the lake, perhaps have a picnic but her desires are already being thwarted. Crossing rough water isn’t what she has in mind either. Things are clearly not going to turn out the way she wants.
Decide how you will introduce a hint of conflict. Change is the catalyst for conflict, so hint at some kind of conflict. It doesn’t have to be huge and dramatic. It can start as quietly as this note of tension between the couple on the lake. For Jack, it is likely to be a mounting anxiety inside his own head. Your hint of conflict will take longer to introduce in a novel but can still quite comfortably happen in the first couple of pages.
Decide how you can create an emotional response in your readers towards the close of that first scene, such as the sense of apprehension felt towards the couple in the boat.
Strive to make details concrete, fresh and convincing. Your readers can visualise the ‘something’ Jack put in the fridge if they know it’s a small, white, plastic box with a clasp on one side, like the one his mother used to keep beads in. It will be easier for readers to feel involved in the trip downriver if they are presented with some of the detail:
She lifted her hand to shade her eyes and scanned the banks that sloped down from the cottage, so thick with primroses that it looked as if someone had scattered the grass with petals after a wedding.
Decide which details you could make significant. Perhaps Jack scratches the back of his hands when he gets worried. Maybe he notices a small stain on the stair carpet that begins to bother him.
Decide what sort of person is involved. Make this person your main character, doing or saying something that pulls your reader into the action and engages their emotions and curiosity, like the young woman so looking forward to her day out. Bring Jack onstage in character, behaving like the kind of person he is, so that the reader knows what to expect of him. (we will go into this more later, in our posts on character). In a short story your main character will probably appear immediately, whereas a novel this might take longer, though he, or she, is likely to be there by the end of the first page.
Making these decisions are important as you write your beginning because what follows leads on from them. If your reader is involved and curious they will be looking for clues to the type of story, the setting, who is important, what matters, what problem needs solving.
If you know your characters, you will know how they are likely to behave and react.
If you have your hint of conflict early in the story, you can go on to develop it from there
If you have focused on particular details, you can establish a convincing tone and setting and even include a suggestion of threat or malice, if that’s what you want.
Be prepared to change some of this when you rewrite because the beginning of a story is a place where you are juggling a lot of possibilities in your head while you try to home into a fictional world. It’s likely that you will put in more than you need to. You may find it’s possible to reveal some things more naturally later on in the story, rather than here at the beginning.
Now you have some of the main ingredients and you have made some major decisions. You have enough information to try out a few beginnings. It doesn’t matter if you don’t finish them. Let me know how you get on.
There is you and your story – and your readers? They seems to be popping up here quite a bit. You have left clues for them to follow? Isn’t that enough?
Next Post: ‘Dear Reader’ – What else have readers got to do with my writing? Aren’t they more important at the end, when the story’s complete? Why do I have to worry about them from the beginning?