In the beginning…

July 24, 2011 § 12 Comments

Want to know how to start a story?

If you are a writer you are saying, dang! Start a story? Give me something I can use. Tell me how to middle a story.

Like a clothesline, the beginning and end of a story are firmly anchored. It’s the middle that usually sags.

I have only one potentially useful tip for those lost in the middle. Write an ending.

Start and finish (like Romeo and Juliet yearning for each other) will find a way to come together as swiftly as possible.

As for ending a story, momentum will almost always carry you. Just understand that whatever you say at the end of the story becomes unnaturally heavy, kind of like your weight, measured on Jupiter, as opposed to your weight, measured on Mercury.

Take this simple sentence:

And the door closed.

Reading this sentence in the middle of a book you would know that minor-character-Joan just left the house to pick up a jar of mayonnaise. This same sentence used as the last in the book is irrevocable and forever. Whatever the door has closed upon can never be regained. As a last sentence it could bring a reader to tears.

But this is a post on how to start.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” is the opening of an epic tale. Few stories could live up to the expectations created by such an ambitious promise—because the opening of a story is a promise. Stick around and I’ll tell you all about what this guy named God did in seven days (even allowing for one on which he took a long nap).

The beginning must fit the scale of the book. For most stories an opening like the one above would be the literary equivalent of plopping Michelangelo’s David down in the parking lot of a Dairy Queen.

Begin by giving the reader an honest introduction to what the story has to offer in terms of scale, plot and tone. The following is the opening of one of my novels:

Jazzed on caffeine, she works the pedals barefoot the way she did when Jax taught her to drive.  Gospel on the radio.  Voices, stiff with conviction declare, “I will rise, rise again,”and she knows she is back in the South. 

Twenty-four hours behind the wheel of this pickup.  Her shoulders ache.  The floor pan is hot.  The intervening years have turned the sand road to washboard.  At the edge of her seat, she strains to catch the wink of a tin roof between the trees.

You don’t know who “Jax” is but because his name appears in the first sentence, you know he is important to the “she” behind the wheel. Does it bother you that “Jax” is not explained? Probably not. You trust that I will tell you more about him as the story unfolds. And what about those “intervening years?” What’s happened to Jax and the woman in the truck since he “taught her to drive?”

In two paragraphs I have established the scale of the story, which is intimate, and promised a romantic plot that relies on atmosphere more than action. If that is your kind of story you will read on.

At what moment should your story begin? If your characters were real they would live entire lives, but only times of pivotal change would be story-worthy. Change is the engine of story, so start as close to that change as possible.

Genre is a good indicator of how close you can get. A thriller or mystery might start with a man jumping off a bridge. The bang of opening with the change works for genres in which plot is the primary muscle.

The disadvantage is that, having no familiarity with the man who jumps, the reader is responding to raw action. Because my stories depend on the reader’s attachment to my characters I often begin with the ordinary moment that precedes the change:

Eyes closed, Ann stretches her arm toward his side of the bed, but the pillowcase is cool against the back of her hand.  She rolls onto her stomach and sprawls, the bed all hers, and sleep washes over her, like a wave reclaiming a shell from the sand.

The smell of coffee wakes her the next time.  On the bedside table a thick china mug sits beside the vase of roses he surprised her with two days ago on Valentine’s.  Every morning the coffee is there in the same blue mug, and every Valentine’s Day the roses are yellow.  

Within three pages the husband who gave Ann yellow roses will die of a heart attack, but by then the reader will know enough about this couple to feel the tragedy as personal.

But no matter what the genre, many stories, especially in the early drafts, begin too soon, as if the writer has backed up a long, long way before running at it.

When you reread your opening there will be one sentence that surprises you by taking a deep breath. Start there.

Recognizing the writing tools you use best will affect every part of your story–especially the beginning. My strength is word choice. My writing appeals to the reader who responds to language. A reader who wants an action-filled plot will never be satisfied by a story I’ve written and the opening will quickly tip them off.

Still, in my writing for young readers I understand that I have to deliver something in the way of action and I need to do it quick. Being mysterious is a trick (perhaps cheap) to entice a reader into a story. Below is the first-draft opening of the children’s novel I’m working on. The phrase, “the day everything changed” is a cheesy ploy that will probably be better concealed in the final draft but the intrigue provided by “the day everything changed” will remain.

We were shooting hoops in the street in front of Leroy’s the day everything changed.  Up until then my little brother Cody was a regular kid. Short and kind of a pest, he bugged me a lot, which is normal for an almost seven-year-old.

As usual, Cody had to play with me and my friends.  As usual he sent the ball everywhere but through the hoop.  The third time he put the basketball on the roof of Mr. Barnett’s carport I told him, “Go home and sit down until you’ve had a couple more birthdays.”  How was I supposed to know that when Cody came back half an hour later he would be a different kid?  If I’d known I might have kept him in the game.

But maybe not.  The outlook for the summer ahead was really boring—and not everything that happened was bad.

The beginning of any story makes promises. (And what you promise, you must deliver).

The tone has to be right. It is hard to imagine a serious story beginning with, “A minister, a priest and a rabbi…” especially if they walk into a bar.

The beginning reveals what the writer has to offer a reader. Give ’em your best, but avoid false advertising.

Expect to write the opening a zillion times; many more than you will write the ending. By the time you reach the end the preternatural force of gravity will be with you.  Almost any sentence will do.

And the door closed.

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§ 12 Responses to In the beginning…

  • craig reeder says:

    your readers are clamoring to know when your book about Ann will be out. especially now that you’ve told us that her husband, who brings her coffee and flowers, will die in the beginning.


  • If only they were clamoring… But thanks for putting the idea out there. Clamoring has to start somewhere.


  • Carl Fogelin says:

    I use to write collaborative online fiction. Participants would describe a setting and the writers would come up with a short piece. One story started by a friend began with a cheesy “Jesus walked into an Inn” joke. The story was about a man being crucified and his reminiscing how he ended up in that predicament. The “Joke” was an icebreaker, it introduced something about the man and where he was. It also set the tone for the story, retrospection with a touch of wry humor.

    Story beginnings really do define a lot about what is to follow. Not necessarily plot, but mood, setting, scope… Sometimes all it does is start the ball rolling, you have to turn the page to see where that ball goes.


    • Jesus walked into a bar? The things they leave out of the bible…

      I like the notion of a story as a rolling ball. Sad to say, it doesn’t usually move along that easily for the writer–but therein lies the challenge!


  • nschauer says:

    I like the idea of beginning at the end. That method would focus a writer on plot which can be essential in a short story or novel.
    In my own writing, I’m focused on style more and character – but then I’m not trying to write fiction.
    Mostly, I’m inspired by other writers like yourself. It’s great finding good writers on the web.


  • judyransom says:

    I’ve been blessed with never knowing Envy, Adrian, but your command of fiction brings me closer to his lure …

    Love ya!


  • You know, A., if you’d told me this sooner – about beginnings that is – I wouldn’t have spun my wheels so long finding the proper beginning of The Vision Seeker! Geez, woman, what are friends for?! LOL, MLS


    • Shoot! Did I forget to cover that? I was probably too busy harping on the importance of smells and sounds. What would a work of fiction be worth without the smell of rain on a hot tar road and the slap of a screen door?


  • Tgumster says:

    I used to be a writer who started too soon or not at all but always, I wrote faster and faster–no wonder I got so tired–finally, the folly in my writing revealed itself. Yes, I am a recovering “pantser,” one who wrote by the seat of her pants. I now recognize the advantage of conceiving a story through scene, and as a result, a timeworn draft of a novel has a beginning because I now know “the rest of the story.” It’s a start….


    • Take heart. You would not have known the rest of the story if you hadn’t rushed out it willy-nilly. I firmly believe that story must take the writer by surprise. I’m willing to be humbled by an explanation of how a planner gets the job done, but to me a plot completely built before starting lacks a certain magic. The gears and belts and pulleys are too conspicuous in the writer’s mind.


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