If you have ever started to read a novel and became bored by the end of paragraph one, it might not be that the story is dull. There is a good chance that what you are reading isn’t really the story’s beginning.
One story beginning, particularly with novels, that has me yawning is the big character background story. Or the big travelogue of a city or a town. As my old journalist and creative writing instructor would say, “So what?”
You can start with character or setting or both together. The trick is to bring in something about your story. Something that will grab your reader. You need a good lead (or “lede” as it is sometimes spelled), as we old journalists call it.
I was a freelance journalist for 35 years and writing a good lead for my articles was very important. Otherwise it was impossible to write the rest of the story. The lead lets the reader know something about what the story is going to cover and teases them in to read all the details.
So when I write fiction or edit other authors’ fiction, I always pay attention to the lead. Sometimes the lead is hidden a few pages later or even a few chapters later. One author’s novel’s actual lead was a chapter near the middle. She needed to pull out that chapter and a few after it and bring them to the front. And then do some rewriting.
Rewriting, of course, is always necessary when writing fiction and ho-hum leads can be fixed then.
Off the top of my head here is an example of a bad story beginning.It is made up and not from any client’s fiction or any of mine.
Ellen was born in 1960 in the town of Crystal, the third in a family of four siblings. Her mother was an Osborne before her marriage to James Clark. She was a shy child who didn’t say much in school but she always got good grades. Her mother was also quiet and her father spoke in a loud boisterous voice. Ellen’s two older siblings, Daniel and Robert, teased her. Her younger sibling, Gail got on better with her brothers.
And on and on ad nauseum.
Do we really care about Ellen and her family?
Let’s see what we can do with that beginning – if we want to get some family background in and make it relevant to the story. If we want to make the reader care about Ellen and her family and read on. Something like this:.
Ellen Clark had always been shy and withdrawn. Until now. If her older brothers, Danny and Robbie, could see her now, they would be sorry they spent her childhood teasing her. They would be proud of her for what she just did for them, for her, and for the rest of the family. Especially Gail. Poor Gail. Best friends with Danny and Robbie had not helped Gail.
Ellen smiled as she looked down at her feet and what lay there.
Or something like that. Hey, I write mystery fiction. Anyway, let’s compare the two story beginnings. We still have Ellen, her shyness, her two brothers and the fact that they teased her and her sister Gail hanging out with the two brothers. We don’t mention Ellen’s birthday year or the town, or her parents names or their main traits. That can come later. We have woven in a few things to tease the reader in. What did Ellen do just now? How did she go from being shy and withdraw to taking some kind of action. And what about Gail or the parents? What is lying at Ellen’s feet? Or should that be “who”?
This is the type of lead to draw in the reader. Even if you are not writing a mystery, a story needs some suspense, which could very well be about the relationships in that Clark family. Or it could be something else – whatever your imagination conjures up.
I’ll end with the beginning of one of the short stories in my mystery collection Beyond the Tripping Point as it does have some family background woven into it. And I’ve used another technique to start the story and then pushed into the family background.
“The police can’t find her, Ms. Bowman,” Robin Morgrave says.
Rosemary Morgrave has gone missing and I’m putting on a brave smile for her twin brother. Robin sat on the other side of the desk in The Attic Agency’s third floor office. Only my twin brother, Bast, nodding, stops me from losing it. Ever since David, my seven-year-old son, was abducted last August, I’ve been living in Panicville.Sure, we got him back, but how much of him returned? He follows Bast around like an investigator-in-training. His brown eyes stare right through my soul.I wish he’d just say how he feels. But since his return, David hasn’t opened his mouth except ti swallow liquids and food. He doesn’t even cry. (Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright Sharon A. Crawford, published by Blue Denim Press, 2012).
You can pick it apart and try to guess what will happen in the story. Or you can read it. If you click on the BTTP icon at the top of this post, it takes you to my Amazon profile as well as to information about Beyond the Tripping Point and the novel (with the same three characters) Beyond Blood.
Sharon A. Crawford