In my last post I promised an extra post this week, in which I would take the list of possible ways to begin a story suggested by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, in their book, ‘What If?’, and give examples of my own to fit them. My intention is to demonstrate how you can come up with a brief idea for a story (not necessarily a thought through or worked out story) and have a variety of starting points to experiment with. You will see that each beginning can provide a different perspective on the same story idea, or a different point of entry into it. I hope you can use these examples to think about which type of beginning will best suit the story you want to tell.
Anna’s mother left five years ago and they haven’t seen one another since. She left after an accident that affected both their lives in a particular way. Now she is coming back.
You can begin the same story idea with:
My mother believed people shouldn’t get too close to each other. There were always consequences.
A description of a person:
She was standing at the railing, smaller and thinner than I remembered but with the same rigid body and anxious frown.
A narrative summary:
The accident happened to my mother but in a way it happened to me, too. It was as if a sudden wave threw the detritus of my life onto the shoreline, where it lay brittle and exposed.
What do you mean you didn’t recognize me? said Anna, smiling and holding out her arms.
“You’ve changed your hair,” her mother replied, taking a step back and turning to pick up her suitcase.
Anna dropped her arms, unsurprised by the reaction. There had never been much warmth in her mother. Still, it must be strange to be back, unsettling. “How are you?” she said, changing the subject.
“Tired and hot.”
“Would you like a drink before we go?”
Anna hoisted the suitcase into the back of her car with more enthusiasm than she felt. It was going to be a long drive.
Several characters but no dialogue:
Anna checked her watch. She had promised not to be late. She hurried into the house to find her mother already seated at the dining table, a sheaf of papers spread out in front of her. Two thin men in dark suits sat with her and nodded briefly at Anna as she pulled out a chair and sat down. In the silence that followed, she stretched her arm across the table and her mother patted it stiffly.
A setting and only one character:
The accident seemed a long time ago now and she tried not to think about it. It was the end of April already; just warm enough to sit out on the terrace. She looked at her mother’s garden sloping gently away from her and down to the fields beyond. It was a fine day and, except for a burst of song from a bird somewhere among the trees, strangely quiet.
A reminiscent narrator:
My mother was happy in this house before she left and before the accident and the things that came after. I wondered what she would make of the changes, my changes, to her house.
A child narrator:
After I emptied the Johnson’s baby powder on the floor, I spread it all out and then I skated on it in my socks and made wiggly lines like you can make with a fork on the top of cheesecake. I pretended there were people looking and I bowed and got ready to skate again but my mother was standing near the door and she was really quiet. Her face was white like the powder and her lips were like a straight line.
Deciding on First Person Viewpoint
You will see that my examples are written from different viewpoints. You will need to decide which viewpoint is best for your story. Experimenting with different story openings will help you decide. For example will it be best served by the immediacy of First Person?
I never knew how I should feel about my mother. She was a strange, complex person and I don’t believe I liked her.
Deciding on Third Person Viewpoint
Or is your story best told with the greater flexibility of Third Person? We will look at decisions about point of view in much more detail in later posts. For the moment, experiment with each of these and see what you learn:
Anna was already beginning to feel the familiar mixture of anger and dread tightening her chest and slowing her breathing. Not only was her mother coming home but she was coming to stay.
My examples probably aren’t the best in the world but I hope they help; that you get the idea…
Next Post – What about all the stuff I need to explain at the beginning, for the story to make sense. I can’t just leave it out, can I?