Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Few Ways to Start Stories

I used to have a set bunch of rules I followed concerning beginnings of stories. I did a Thursday 5 in March listing five common ways of starting stories. And of course, most of us know what not to do (don't start with weather, dreams, or dialogue). So, where does that leave us? In modern fiction, it leaves us starting with action ("in media res").

Saying you must start with action is all very well. But you must still know the intricacies of characters in action. One of the things I learned in my editing workshop was that most of the stories in that workshop had good beginnings, but none of them knocked it out of the park. Including mine. Figuring this out for yourself is really tough and really specific to your own story. But here are a few guidelines:

Start with empathy.
Show your character in action, but doing something that will build introduction and empathy with the character. The point here is to make sure your character has time to be introduced to the reader. Note that this does not mean giving backstory. It merely means showing your character being human.

Start with your hook.
Even if it's a hint of the greater hook. The trick here is to not begin with explanation or exposition, but with conflict and drama. While still building character introduction, of course.

Start with simplicity.
Don't overwrite. Don't show off. Just show a scene. People doing things. What this means is not describing a bunch of stuff and hoping that it makes a scene. Show. Show. Show. And explain the relation of events to each other. Don't have a bunch of aliens attacking people while a farmhand is talking with the farmer in the field next to the mother ship.

Start with just a few characters.
Remember that the reader has just been thrust into your world, and it's like dipping his or her head into a bucket of ice water. Make it easy for them. Don't bombard them with a million characters that the reader has to struggle to get to know right away. This is part of building empathy. Give the reader time to get into the story, while starting with action and simplicity, and your hook of course.

I've made all of the mistakes above. I still struggle with this; as I said, it's so specific to your story that you have to mold and massage the scene to hit the above note. And, as with all points, these are general and will vary. Let's look at the Wizard of Oz. It starts with the witch (Miss Almira Gulch), who takes Toto to put him down. The characters that start the story are Miss Gulch, Dorothy, and Toto. We feel empathy for Dorothy because her dog is being taken. The scene is all action, and it's simple: Miss Gulch takes the dog. It's not quite the hook, but it sure hints of things to come.

Look at any book on your shelf and open the first page. With the exception of older books and epics, do they start in action? Do they build immediately empathy and are they simple?

Let us know in the comments. Also please add any items to the list above that you find useful.


Tina Lynn said...

The only other thing I might add is to make sure that you ground the reader. I always have trouble with this. You are definitely right about not bogging the reader down with description, but they still need to know where the character is and what the world is like. Otherwise, it's like the character is moving around a whiteboard or something. Awesome post! XOXO

JEM said...

One thing I'd like to add to this, especially after having read many entries in first paragraph contests around the web, is to not drop readers in the middle of a scene. Starting with action is not the same as dropping someone in the middle of a fight scene or a death scene. I find it really confusing when the opening scene is someone who's just been shot, or something has just been burned, or someone has just said something important, and that's what you miss. A little bit of set-up is nice (for me). Who does this perfectly to me? Crime drama shows; they start with someone discovering the body, then move into the police showing up.

Anne R. Allen said...

Excellent advice. I know I've broken all these rules many times. I always try to hard and overwhelm the reader at the start.

Tina Lynn is right about the grounding. Gotta let them know where we are--but with a minimum of description.

Plus, along with dreams, weather and dialogue, I'd add "waking up and/or getting ready for work" as another opening experts say we should avoid.

KLM said...

In the first version of my ms I had no less that 11 characters in the first 15 pages. I needed someone to actually pick up my ms and hit me with it before I realized how very NOT GOOD an idea that was. Alas, you live and learn and get rejected a lot before some of these lessons really hit home.

Also, I personally don't like excessive, detailed description of the landscape, surroundings, neighborhood, etc. When I come to stuff like that, I skip over it.

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