Everyone seems to do beginnings differently. Some people start with a single line intended to somehow encompass the entire story. Some people start mysteriously, with statements you won’t understand until several paragraphs or pages later. You can start near the end, start in the middle of the action (in medias res, like Homer!), start with dialogue, with suspense, with a perfectly normal day that’s about to go haywire.
Here’s a rule I learned from quite a few publishers – and they’re the ones accepting the stories, so unlike most of my advice, this bit is actually really solid, not just from my experience. Don’t start with “I woke up.” Your character doesn’t need to wake up. They do that every day. We know that for the story to take place, they must have awakened at some point. Skip it.
Everything else here is a mix of what I’ve heard, what I’ve seen, and what I’ve tried.
I’ll start with a piece of advice I’ve heard that has really worked for me – the place where you start writing and the place where your story really starts are not always the same place.
This is important for me, because I always have to write my way into anything, and sometimes you just have to start writing at “I woke up” and go from there. You might write through a whole day of action to learn who your character is and what they do on a normal day. Only then does the weirdness start. But often your story starts not with the normal day, but with the crazy day that comes afterward. One strategy I’ve seen and liked is to write and, when the story’s over, to go back and see if you can cut the first page, or at least the first scene. Get to the action faster, with less setup. There have been scenes that I’ve had to write to understand the story that, looking back, my reader doesn’t need to understand the story. It’s surprising how much of the beginning can be thrown away sometimes without losing anything. So just think – where does the really important stuff begin?
The beginning of the story has various purposes. Of course it needs to set the whole story up, either hinting mysteriously or giving necessary information or just starting into the plot. But most of all, especially in short fiction, the true goal of a beginning is the hook. If you can’t convince the reader within a page – preferably within a paragraph, or even a line – that this story is worth reading, it’s hard to get it read, let alone published if that’s your goal (and it might not be! Writing is fun for writing’s sake. But a good story should capture the reader’s attention no matter what).
But what counts as a hook? Well, at Alpha, we sit in a circle, read our first lines aloud, and have people raise their hands when they’re hooked by the story. It was a good way to see what, in fact, catches people’s attention and makes them want to read more. Asking friends (or, better yet, critiquers) whether your beginning grabs their interest is a good way to see if it’s working. Of course, you have to consider your audience. One particularly morbid year, we were all forced to the conclusion that with that group, the best way to grab anyone’s attention was to kill someone within the first paragraph.
Not every audience is going to want a dead body in the first line, and not every story has any dead bodies to use. The exploding spaceship is a famous eye-grabber, but really good writing, a line of particularly clever dialogue, a mystery that needs solving, a hint at something coming – any of these will pull the reader in. If your story doesn’t start with action, you could start instead with something surprising, something strange, or something funny.
Basically, I’ve found that what works for me is a combination of being aware of what makes a good beginning, cutting away the start to get directly into the action, and checking with people to make sure the start draws interest enough. There are other methods – you can try to always start immediately with an action or suspense scene. Witty dialogue is often a good grabber. You can start with a mystery, or with a surprise, or with your main character looking back over the events to come. I’ve seen people use these tactics, and they work. Not having perfected them, I tend to start simply where I think the story starts, and hope that an interesting first line and a plot-related first scene will carry the story.
Those are the general strategies I’ve seen and the ones that work f or me. Beyond that, the one trick I’ve seen to starting a story is a quick teaser from the end of the story. If anyone’s read Twilight, that’s a perfect example – start in the middle of the climax, and then back up. A lot of TV shows do this too – an explosion or a murder or a fall, and then the little subtitle: One Day Earlier. Then the show actually starts. If the real beginning of your story is while your main character is doing something relatively boring, and you need a hook, then you can do that, put the climax at the beginning so you get people’s attention. This is actually a pet peeve of mine; stories that do that kind of drive me crazy. I vote you just make your beginning interesting. But that’s completely personal preference, and lots of people do it, so it must be a decent method. If that’s what works for your story, that’s an easy way to get some action in before the action starts.
Most importantly, the first line, paragraph, and scene – that’s what you should polish the most. It’s the first thing a reader sees, and a mistake or an awkward sentence can sometimes lose the reader as easily as an exploding spaceship can grab one.
What do you think? How do you write beginnings? What holds your interest when you start a story? What tactics did I leave out? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
Note: In the comments, there’s a mention of the “Red Line of Death” exercise. This is an alternative to the hook exercise I mentioned earlier, where people raise their hands when they’re caught and want to read more. In the Red Line of Death, someone (at Alpha, we were shown this by a top sci-fi magazine editor, but you could have anyone do it, the way the hook exercise worked) puts a red line on the manuscript at the moment where he or she loses interest in the story. Because it’s focused on losing instead of catching a reader, this sort of exercise makes it easier for a piece with solid writing to do well vs. one with a distinctive action hook.