Doors to Worlds

DSCF0532‘First sentences are doors to worlds” (Ursula Le Guin)

Problem: Is there a best or most useful way to start? I’m not really sure what makes a good beginning.

In a previous post (Mighty Things), we looked at some of the ingredients you need to begin a story. This post goes on to develop some of those a little further

Start with a change:
We talked previously about starting your first scene by showing a change from an initial situation. Here are some further suggestions:

Try these: – four things that will help you show that change. You will need:

1. An existing situation – something going on as usual, a quiet saturday on the river or another tedious business meeting. This is to show what is routine for the character or characters involved. Then, when you introduce a change, the type or degree of deviation from that routine will be clearer.

2. A new element or relationship – a stranger calls or the river rises. It doesn’t have to be a huge or disastrous change. It can be good news. Winning a competition or having your son come home unexpectedly can bring unforeseen difficulties too.

3. A character who is affected by the change and their response to it – when you introduce your characters, their behaviour will reveal their personalities and allow them to react to change as the person they are. Make them a little out of the ordinary to add interest.Your character could be a hoarder with a large collection of something that is now of control. His personality is likely to be one that resists change.

4. A consequence – The change has to be one that is ongoing and with significant consequence, something that is too much for your character to ignore. Otherwise, life will go back to normal and the change will be forgotten. The swell in the river will go down and the stranger will leave. To prevent this happening, the consequence has to be of vital importance. It doesn’t have to be huge in the eyes of the world but it does have to be huge in the eyes of the character. For example, something could occur making it vital that the hoarder deals with his compulsion. Or something could occur making it intolerable for the person sharing a home with the hoarder to go on living there. Then you have the likelihood of a rising conflict between two characters.

Start with a scene:
Readers want to see what is happening but it is very important that you don’t describe this. They don’t want a narrative summary, they want to visualise your story, as if they were watching a movie or play.

Try this:
It might seem ridiculous but imagine yourself as a wizard or a genie, creating a world in front of people’s eyes. The puff of smoke around your story clears and, for example, you see two people, standing in a laboratory. They are talking. Move in closer. Create the dialogue. Visualise the scene and then bring it to life for your reader.

This is the paragraph that contains your hook, so try not to wind it down too much. You want to avoid making it feel anti climactic because you need to carry the reader with you into the next paragraph. (Don’t worry too much about this right now, we will come back to it in a later post)

Start in the Middle:
If you start your story too soon, your beginning will appear to have been dropped in from nowhere without giving your reader a chance to make sense of what is happening. You won’t have given your reader time to get involved, or intrigued. You need to establish a brief baseline of normality for your reader to appreciate the change when your character strays from it. If you start your story too late you may end up explaining and you definitely want to avoid that (more about explaining at the beginning of a story in another post, soon). Your reader may get bored and stop reading.

Try this:
Imagine a teacup moving along a tabletop to the edge. You are watching its progress. You will not be interested in its journey across the tabletop. After you have established that you are watching a particular teacup on a particular table it will only begin to interest you at the moment it begins to teeter on the edge and you wonder if it is going to fall. This is where you your story begins – in the middle of the action (also referred to as ‘in medias res’) – close to the change, just as the trouble is starting or just after the trouble starts.

Start with credible writing:
Use your beginning to hold your readers attention and guide them into your story with fluent writing. Writers use a variety of sentence lengths and rhythms, repetitions of sounds and so on.

Try this:
Study a piece of writing that has you reading effortlessly or that seems to cast a spell. What do you notice? How have the writers achieved that effect? This isn’t about polishing up your grammar (though that will help too) but about developing an ear for tone, sound and rhythm. Read your work out loud to hear the rhythm.

So, now you can draw the reader in, give them something to focus on, roll the camera on the first scene, home in on an interesting person briefly doing something in their usual way. Then in the middle of the action, you can introduce a change that causes trouble with potentially serious consequences to which your character can’t help but react. You are now on your way to a successful story.

Next Post – My beginnings all look the same. Are there other ways to begin?

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About lesleyjjackson

Author, Short Story Writer and Poet - Offers help to new, confused and blocked writers
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