Opening Your Story

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I know the title makes it sound a lot like I’m only addressing novelists and fiction writers. Bear with me! It’s important to understand the word “story” has a broader context. Advertisers tell the story of their products. Biographers tell the story of their subjects. Plays tell stories, poetry tells stories, newspapers tell stories. And people love stories. It’s why marketers are coming back to telling stories—because they stick in people’s hearts and minds and souls.

From prehistoric times when our ancestors gathered around fires in caves, storytellers have been aware of how arranging events in a story-like way held the attention of an audience.

The first recorded story is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates from 2100 BCE. The first half of the story discusses Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods to stop him oppressing the people of Uruk. After an initial fight, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become close friends. In the second half of the epic, Gilgamesh's distress at Enkidu's death causes him to undertake a long and perilous journey to discover the secret of eternal life.

So if you think about this, you can pull this iconic story apart into its different elements. There’s conflict. There’s friendship. There’s resolution of conflict. There’s death. There’s a search for higher meaning. These are the same elements present in stories up to the ones that we’re reading right now.

And these are all elements that are discussed, ad infinitum, ad nauseaum, in writing classes, including the ones I teach. But here’s the thing: writing courses tend to skip right to the good parts: dialogue, characterization, setting. They often ignore one of the most important elements of storytelling: the beginning. What elements are best for opening the story? How does the writer hook the reader into wanting to read the whole thing?

There are three elements that make browsers purchase or borrow books, and these are as true for ebooks as they are for paper ones. The cover is—and always will be—the primary draw. The blurbs on the back are the second. And the third happens when the reader turns to that first page and sees whether or not it pulls them in.

Because that’s it, and that’s all there is to it. It’s not rocket science. You may have limited control over your cover and your blurbs, but the opening of your story is all yours. So how do you make the potential reader want to read on?

The first rule of opening a story is to start the way you mean to continue. Your first few sentences should capture the voice that you’ll be using to tell the rest of the story. They should also present a point of view, a hint of characterization, and the beginnings of your plot. The opening is what gives the reader direction and momentum.

Let’s look at a few examples.

  • Jodi Picoult is an American novelist who gives us some of the best first lines in contemporary literature. “Nicholas won’t let me into my own house, but I have been watching my family from a distance,” she writes in Harvesting The Heart. In Vanishing Acts, she starts out with, “I was six years old the first time I disappeared.” And in Picture Perfect, we have one of my all-time favorite opening lines, when Picoult writes, “The first thing the groundskeeper saw when he went to tend to the small cemetery behind St. Sebastian’s was the body that someone had forgotten to bury.”

  •  Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is another opening that brings the reader right to the heart of both the story and the narrator: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” In The Moon-Spinners, Mary Stewart opens with, “It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it,” while in Touch Not the Cat she gives her readers a touch of mystery with “My lover came to me on the last night in April, with a message and a warning that sent me home to him.”

 Each of these openings tells the reader a lot about the story. They establish a point of view. They set up conflict. They intrigue the reader and make him or her want to read more.

 So don’t wait: put the best you have into your opening.

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Once you’ve done that, think about where your narrator is in the story. Literally. Where do we meet this person? Too many beginning writers want to put everything in—no detail too small. But novels aren’t the same as a Twitter feed: what the character ate for breakfast is probably not relevant to anybody but that character, so leave it out. A great opening to a story is an opening with a minimum of clutter.

To declutter sensibly, decide which components are necessary and which are not. You need to have some sort of context, so imagine a camera coming in with a wide angle and focusing on the narrator. See where they are, what they’re doing, what will lead logically into the telling of the story.

Many writers sensibly follow the admonition attributed to Chekov, to show rather than tell, and so they use dialogue as a sort of information dump. This is never, ever, ever a good idea—it’s often known as “maid-butler dialogue,” along the lines of, “But you know that his lordship never takes tea with the Duchess on Thursdays, so there must be something wrong as he's doing it today.” As I said, never a good idea, but starting your story with it is pretty much a cardinal sin. Resist this urge in your opening paragraph. It’s tricky to start with dialogue—it’s like throwing your reader suddenly and unexpectedly into a set of fast-moving rapids—and should probably not be attempted at home.

In all of this, remember all the while: your story beginning isn’t written in stone. You may have fallen in love with a line that doesn’t serve your purpose—in other words, it doesn’t serve the remainder of the story—very well. Be ready to acknowledge it doesn’t work. Samuel Johnson and Stephen King have both urged writers to “kill your darlings,” and the very beginning of your story is the best time to demonstrate ruthlessness. Don’t worry: keep those fabulous words, and perhaps you’ll be able to re-use them some other time.

Once you’re finished, you may want to revisit your beginning; if you write at all as I do, you’ll find that the final story bears little resemblance to what you thought it would turn out to be, and your opening lines should reflect these changes.

Start your story as you mean to go on: with elegance, with passion, with clarity. And that’s what will get readers picking your book up—and not putting it down again.