Count the Ways

IMG_3767Problem: My beginnings all look the same. Are there other ways to begin?

There appear to be a bewildering amount of ways to begin a story but actually there are only five main ways of giving the reader information about your story. These are called narrative modes. They include dialogue, description, action, thoughts and exposition. It is likely that your story will use all of them at some stage but here, at your beginning, you only need to concentrate on one. What can be confusing, I think, is that there are variations on this theme, as you will see in the examples below.

The most important thing, as Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter say in their excellent book “What If?”, is to “choose the beginning that most appropriately raises the curtain on the narrative to follow” But what do they mean by “appropriately”? Well, something that best suits the story that is to come. For example, will it suit your story to open on a scene where something or someone is being talked about, or will it be more important to bring your character out into the limelight straight away, or would it be best to show someone doing something because that will have significance later?

In their chapter entitled ‘Ways to Begin a Story’, Bernays and Painter list the following ways to begin a story: with a brief description of a person, a narrative summary, dialogue, with several characters and no dialogue, a setting and single character, a child narrator and a reminiscent narrator. They follow these with examples by well known novelists and short story writers.

In an extra post this week I will begin a story in each of the above ways, using my own examples, so that you can see the differences between them.

Josip Novakovich in his book ‘Writing Fiction Step by Step’, suggests other starting points: an idea, a strong sensation, a symbolic object, a question, travel, a prediction and an emotion. These work with, and in some cases overlap with the Bernays and Painter examples above, which in in turn fit into the five narrative modes. For example, your first line of dialogue could be a question. Character and setting could involve travel and may also include what someone is thinking.
Check out both these useful books for more information, examples and some very helpful exercises.

You don’t even have to work in chronological order. Ali Smith’s book ‘Hotel World’, for example, begins with the end of her story.

And then there is there is Viewpoint, or Point of View which it is often called. This will also have an impact on how you begin. (Much more on this in a later post but I will include examples in the next post)

In the meantime –

Try this:

Write different beginnings for the same story using some of the suggested ways above – just a few paragraphs will be enough. Write fast and don’t be too critical. (Don’t worry too much about exposition. The next two posts will help clarify this) See if your different beginnings affect or change your story at all. You might find that more than one of these could work with your story. Remember that the threads that you set up in this beginning will need to be continued into the rest of the story (more on this later, too).

Ask “What sort of relationship do I want there to be between the beginning of this story I am writing and its end? Am I setting up something at the beginning that I want to reverse by the end? Or, am I starting with something small that I will show growing steadily into something significant by the end?” This may give you different ways to start.

Experiment with starting a little earlier (not too early), or a little later in the action to see the difference.

Next Post – One Story: Different Ways to Begin

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