Good question! One which could be answered in a myriad of ways. We tackled this difficult question at a recent More Ink gathering.
We shared some examples of terrific beginnings, but sadly, I didn’t take notes and so most of that is lost in the nooks and crannies of time. I’d recently finished reading The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell, so I had several ready examples from this excellent collection of short stories. Here’s my favorite, from a story called Uncle:
A cradle won’t hold my baby. My baby is two hundred pounds in a wheelchair and hard to push uphill but silent all the time. He can’t talk since his head gto hurt, which I did to him. I broke his head with a mattocks and he hasn’t said a thing to me or nobody else since.
What? Holy hell! What is going on here? Well, I know how the story turns out, but I can’t tell you. That would ruin the excellent suspense and sense of wonder that the author has created.
What should a beginning do?
- Introduce conflict and tension
- Start with action, not boring background information
- Make the reader wonder
- Introduce – the setting, character, and proper tone
It’s generally not a good idea to start with:
- Lots of dialogue
- A cliched hook
- In a dream sequence
…and don’t start too early in the story. Crank it up a bit and start further along when the action is really starting to cook. One guest did have an interesting story about starting too late in the scene and thereby not allowing the reader to properly empathize with the character. Whiiiich brings me to an important point, and something I think we already know. Rules are made to be broken and none of this guidance is absolute. Do what makes sense for your story.
At the very least, a beginning should make the reader want to turn the page.
Chuck Wendig, my current author crush, has much to say about how to start. Read it here. Be warned that he can be profane at time; it’s one of my favorite things about his writing. That and the fact that he’s wickedly creative and cool.
We did an exercise using assorted bad beginnings culled from the world wide web of horrible writing. Given the beginnings below, we attempted to re-write them to make them more compelling:
- It was a dark and stormy night.
- Although Sarah had an abnormal fear of mice, it did not keep her from eking out a living at a local pet store.
- Like an overripe beefsteak tomato rimmed with cottage cheese, the corpulent remains of Santa Claus lay dead on the hotel floor.
- Stanley looked quite bored and somewhat detached, but then penguins often do.
- The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the green sward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated, sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the frog’s deception, screaming madly, “You lied!”
- No, he never does manage to win her over but let me tell you how he didn’t.
- Boy, that sure is a lot of giraffes, I see one giraffe, two giraffes, there’s three, and four giraffes.
- It was a blustery fall day when Optimus Prime returned home early to find his wife boning Dracula.
- Bullets rained down on us like– nope, that’s actually just rain.
- I’m a dumb shithead and even though this isn’t really the first line no one will care because I, Donald Trump, am pure garbage.
This exercise actually made me want to stab my own eyes out with a mechanical pencil. I resisted but the fact that I sucked seems indicative of the fact that I need practice. Lots of practice. Many of the attendees had a gift for this. I can vouch for the fact that it’s much harder than it looks. Try some of the examples above and see how you do.
The raffle prize was a terrific book called The Successful Novelist by David Morrell and our own very talented Jonathan Kahn is the lucky recipient. Congrats! Jonathan is preparing for the release of a collection of very short stories called Vanity Plate Tales. You can find some of them on his FB page. I’ve been lucky enough the proof the manuscript and it’s good. Look for its release soon.
If you’re interested in my Feature programs for your writing or art, here are the details.