“If in the first chapter a hurricane is going to blow down an oak tree which falls through the kitchen roof, there’s no need to first describe the kitchen.”
— James Thayer, Author Magazine
We’ve all read short stories and novels that begin with a long description of a scene or a lot of telling about one of the major characters which may or may not include the character’s back story.
None of those is bad in itself. It is when these story beginnings are presented as a dull almost-exposition that leaves the reader yawning. I don’t know about you, but I always read the first page of a novel before deciding whether to buy the book or borrow it from the library. If I start flipping through the pages for something to grab my interest, I usually put the book back in the shelf.
Thayer says it so succinctly above. Why would you describe the kitchen first?
Some authors might figure they are building up the suspense slowly. News flash: This is the story or novel’s beginning. Sure, you want to create suspense but you want to jump right in with any suspense, not draw it out – leave the latter to later in your plot.
Let’s look at one of my earlier beginnings for my short story “Porcelain Doll.”
Sarah Holden eyeballed the porcelain doll in the window. It sat among old tea sets and silver candleholders in Hanover’s newly opened antique shop. The doll’s eyes hypnotized Sarah back to 1965. She saw another porcelain doll, her father dealing cards, and her last train ride.*
Although this isn’t the worst of beginnings, it is far from the best. It tries to grab the reader’s attention by trying to insinuate that something happened in 1965 but it doesn’t really excite the reader.
The first sentence in the second paragraph doesn’t help much either.
Sarah shuddered. Her thoughts fastened on to that train ride.*
Maybe a little enticement with the “shuddered.” But the third paragraph nullifies any reader-grabbing potential.
That 1965 train trip started much the same as any other summer’s trip. Sarah’s father worked for the railway which guaranteed the Holden family free train rides.*
*(All excerpts above Copyright 2002 Sharon A. Crawford)
You could get away with the above if you had a dynamite beginning. But with a weak beginning, the reader doesn’t care.
Flash forward to many, many versions later and to the final being published…
I can’t stop staring at the porcelain doll in the window. It sits among old tea sets and silver candleholders in Hanover’s newest antique shop. I keep trying to look away, but I can’t, despite my heart dancing inside my chest and my breath trying to keep time with it.
I have no business coming back to this area. I should have left the past with Mama when she died last fall from a tumble down the cellar stairs. But when I sorted through her clothes, a newspaper clipping fell from a dress pocket. Of course I had to read it. (Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Book available fall 2012 from Blue Denim Press)
The biggest difference is changing the Point of View from third person to first person (and we will cover POV in future posts.) That draws in the reader. We also still have Sarah staring in the window. But we also get her emotions as she does so. The reader wonders why and wants to read on.
The next paragraph goes into the past – but not back to 1965 yet. Here we get more teasers and realize there is more to this story than Sarah just looking at a doll in the window of an antique store.
So how can you start a story to grab the reader”
- Create suspense as in “Porcelain Doll” above.
- Start with dialogue but make it interesting. Don’t talk about the kitchen décor but get right into it. For example, my story “Gone Missing” begins with
The police can’t find her, Ms Bowman,” Robin Morgrave says. (Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Book available fall 2012 from Blue Denim Press)
You can also use a newspaper, radio or TV news excerpt (real or made up for your story), e-mail or text message to start. Just make sure it ties in with your story. For example a news story about a hurricane in Florida beginning a story about finding a missing child in Toronto won’t work – unless the search takes the main character to Florida or the hurricane spreads to Toronto and figures in the climax.
- Blend in the setting with the story as I do in “Unfinished Business.” This also is an example of a longer lead.
Lilly Clark sat cross-legged on the park bench. She leaned forward, resting elbows on tanned knees. The background hum of cars on the nearby expressway competed with her daughter’s singing Sarah McLachlan’s I Will Remember You while flying high on the swing.
Trish, at 12, was perched on the edge of womanhood.
Lilly, at 12, had lost her childhood and fought the urge to revisit it. She’d only faltered once, but even then hadn’t given in completely.
Until today. (Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Book available fall 2012 from Blue Denim Press)
- Create a mood consistent with your story. The cliché is a character hearing footsteps in the fog. Come up with an original mood – this works in mystery and suspense stories. Just make sure you put the character in the scene and show the character’s feelings and actions. I start “My Brother’s Keeper” with
It’s a bleak hide-inside winter’s day. Did the wind shudder that day you went to your studio for the last time? Did you have to push through deep snow from the house to the end of the driveway? Why the studio? Were you making an artistic statement setting the scene among the clay sculptures and paintings that, since Ellen’s death, were all you had left? (Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Book available fall 2012 from Blue Denim Press)
Sharon A. Crawford
Author of Beyond the Tripping Point