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BIBLIOGRIND

Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Three Ways to Start Your Story

Story beginnings are like looking at fingerprints — each is unique, yet we feel a familiarity in them all. Among the many possibilities to start a story, three serve writers particularly well because they help readers “get into” the story flow: 1) narrative of a recent or “in the moment” event; 2) dialogue between two or three characters; or 3) a simple monologue to set character personality, story tone, intent, and voice.

As a young writer, I used to stand in front of my bookshelf, looking at the few hundred spines (later, thousands) with their titles embossed in silver or gold or blue or black, wondering how all these writers wrote their books, how they finished their “story” and, more importantly for me at the time, how they started the story that would become this bound book. Then, with as much randomness as I could make my hands feel out a title, I would draw out a book and read its first paragraph (or half page). Then I would put it back, draw out another, read its first paragraph, replace it, and move on. Sometimes I stopped at ten books, other times I read on and on, sometimes for an hour. And while I read these opening paragraphs, reading quickly but with concentration and interest, I developed a sense of “the beginning” of a story. I noticed a couple patterns that would serve to help me start, and finish, several novels in the years to come: start the story where it needs to be started, in a way that your tone for the novel comes through best; and, no one knows how to do these things but you.

But given the personal nature of story writing, there were the techniques used by all these authors that let me in on a way to begin:

Story narrative of a recent or “in the moment” event helps set the scene, the place, who is there, and why they are there (known by the end of the scene, at least). Sometimes it’s as easy as writing, “Ben stepped out of the car, looked across the street, and saw his father dead on the sidewalk under the white burning streetlight.” Boom! Here we go; we’ve got the person, the time & place, and conflict. Easy, right? Well, maybe … just as long as you have the next sentence, and the next, and the one after that. Is this going to be a long scene or short scene? With dialogue b/w characters, or an internal monologue? Is something going to happen, or are you teasing the audience with a “sketch” and some “information”?

Beginning a story using only dialogue, you’re dropping the reader into the middle of something — usually an argument — that they don’t understand, but you’d better make them get it inside of a page or so. This is the risk. The reward of opening with dialogue is that you’re letting the characters lead the story from the get-go, and they get to introduce themselves through their voices, expressed thoughts, and attitudes towards one another. It’s effective storytelling, but not for every novel, nor novelist.

Perhaps the riskiest method of the three is the character monologue. One person speaking to you, the audience, needs to have something in his or her voice, and in what is said, that makes you believe this story is worth your time. Leave the voice flat, the idea a cliché, or the message too vague (or worse, a riddle), and you’ve lost the reader inside of the first paragraph.

Examples of these story-starts are everywhere. Try looking through your book stacks, but just the first paragraph of randomly chosen books. See what you notice (especially in the books you’ve already read). And as additional examples, take a look at the following:

(story narrative)

“Dr Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse. He had attended a surprisingly easy calving, lanced one abscess, extracted a molar, dosed one lady of easy virtue with Salvarsan, performed an unpleasant but spectacularly fruitful enema, and had produced a miracle by a feat of medical prestidigitation.” — Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis De Bernieres

 

(dialogue)

“Of course we have to do with two madmen now, not with one.”

“You mean Marcus is mad too?”

“No, he means Patrick is mad too.”

The first speaker was Gildas Herne, the second was Alfred Ludens, the third Jack Sheerwater.

“I mean,” said Gildas, “that by now Patrick is mad. That Marcus is mad goes without saying.”

“Marcus is not mad,” said Luden, “and Pat is very ill, not out of his mind.”

“Gildas is just expressing his frustration,” said Jack.

“We are certainly frustrated.”

Gildas who was sitting at the piano, played some melancholy chords. The open window of the flat admitted smells of springtime from not too distant Regent’s Park. — The Message to the Planet by Iris Murdoch

 

(monologue)

“Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened. I am not your brother, you’ll retort, and I don’t want to know. And it certainly is true that this is a bleak story, but an edifying one too, a real morality play, I assure you. You might find it a bit long — a lot of things happened, after all — but perhaps you’re not in too much a hurry; with a little luck you’ll have some time to spare. And also, this concerns you: you’ll see that this concerns you. Don’t think I am trying to convince you of anything; after all, your opinions are your own business.” — The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

 

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

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