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How do you like to begin your stories?

The other day, literary agent, Nathan Bransford, asked his readers what they thought made for a good first paragraph. Yesterday,[info]jdawson001 asked her blog readers “What is the right beginning anyway?


Not surprisingly, the answers varied. Here’s a sample: Start in media res; pose a question; identify/describe the main character; show tension; introduce an interesting character; set the scene/genre etc.


Such a variety, but which (if any) is the right one?


Any of them might do the job, but none are guaranteed. That’s because we’re not asking ourselves the right question.


Instead of looking at what makes for a good opening paragraph, I think we’d be better served asking ‘What’s its purpose?’ After all, if we know what those first few lines are meant to achieve, we can judge them accordingly.


No matter how we begin our story, I believe the opening should have only one true goal, and that is: Make the reader want to move on to the second paragraph. If it succeeds, then it really doesn’t matter whether we started in media res (Latin for ‘In the middle of events) or dormus nomoreus (not Latin for ‘waking up’).


Personally, I like to start with action, or tension, as opposed to description, but like I said, I don’t think it really matters how we start, provided we pull the reader in.


How about you?


Looking back at all the stories you’ve written, how do you like to begin your stories?



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( 34 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 17th, 2009 03:41 pm (UTC)
Good post, Jon. I lean toward the breadcrumb-dropping metaphor personally. So long as I can do *something* to awaken enough interest and keep that interest going, that's generally plenty.

Here are a few examples of opening paragraphs from some of my stories:

From "The Nest Building Habits of Children Inclined to Ornithomancy and Other Such Auguries": "By the time I was four, my father began teaching me the subtleties of reading crow flight — most other birds, too. How they pin wheeled and canted, burst into the air and swooped down upon opportunity like covetous shadows. He taught me the Latin auis for bird, appropriately enough, in August of the year I began school."

From "The Jisei of Mark VIII": "Sss-uuunnn. Cha-kit. Sss-uuunnn. Cha-kit.

These were the most consistent sounds Mark Edward VIII had heard each day for the past thirteen years and five months of Sophia Loggia's declining days. The dampened noises of his own servos provided counterpoint to the deliberate tedium of each day." (not exactly a single paragraph, but serves the purpose)

From "Dirt Roads and Ka": "The sun beat the boy's head as he tromped along the dirt road. Nearby stood a short bridge where lazy tannin water swirled beneath. His gray baseball cap sported a dark sweat ring, a tad whitish with encrusted salt of past goings-out, but he didn't mind the heat even though a few lines of sweat wrote mysterious trails along his olive skin. His jug ears caught the gentle stir of a stifling breeze along with barking dogs somewhere farther down the road. But on a day like today, there was no reason for him to worry about the sun's battering ram, nor its compatriot, mocking breeze. Fishing must be done, besides an errand or two, and the road was narrow ahead at the bridge. Tree limbs stretched over to offer shade."

From "So If All Do Their Duty": "Much like a bloated cigar with stabilizing fins and quick-turning propeller blades, it pushed itself through cerulean patches. The props cut air just behind the great lower cabin and the passenger coaches. The motors hummed and droned in their own rear housing units and powered by Renault-Gaultier batteries–only the best for an airship of the Crown Dirigible Company."

From "A Matter of Anachronisms, Archetypal yet Curious in Their Implications": "Here lies syntactic mystery from strange and alien tongues, unstuck and bound to the land where 'Once upon a time' wedges itself in the treated-pine cracks in the doorstep of a drunkard’s single-wide trailer, and holy blood and holy roods are nothing more than cheap wine and scarecrow staves out of some dead land."

Oct. 17th, 2009 04:43 pm (UTC)
Are these all short stories or is one or more from a novel?
(no subject) - selfavowedgeek - Oct. 17th, 2009 06:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 17th, 2009 04:00 pm (UTC)
Good post, Jon! And I completely agree that getting the reader to the second paragraph is the ultimate goal, and that there are various ways to do that while getting the story moving and imparting necessary information to the reader. I'll offer a few examples of mine. First, with dialogue:

"Hey, Baruti," Zavia Xiao-Metternich said. "I hear the Fourth Estate is having a fire sale, and they're getting rid of burned-out old relics like you."

Second the more traditional approach with description and set up but hopefully interesting enough to make the reader want to continue:

When Dharma returned to her elemental palace of reconstituted fire and ice, she instantly felt the memories of the old estate. She’d been voidriding for the past countless aeons and to wear the flesh again was a strange admixture of sweet unadulterated oxygen and painful birth-slap on her divine derrière. Oblivion was not at all what her sisters had promised her it would be. Even wrapped in a cocoon of nullification she had still felt something--dammit!--when what she had bargained for was conscious nonexistence. Was that too much to ask?

Third with a hooky opening sentence:

Once upon a time there was a little sidepocket universe consisting only of midgets who had been harvested from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

I'm rather partial to the last as it plays on the classic fairytale opening but lets the reader know this is not a traditional story.
Oct. 17th, 2009 04:44 pm (UTC)
I like that last one, but I wonder if slush readers would get past the "Once upon a time" ;)
(no subject) - marshallpayne1 - Oct. 17th, 2009 04:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 17th, 2009 05:37 pm (UTC)
Good post. I agree with you in the purpose of the opening to get the reader to keep reading the story. That is one of the most important things for a writer to do. Whenever a reader stops reading, even if they plan to pick up the book again, there is a danger of losing them.

I think one important thing to consider in choosing an opening is what you want the story to do.

If you begin a story that has very little action with an action scene you may hook the wrong type of reader, while at the same time turning off those people who prefer "less" action oriented stories.

An opening is like meeting a new person. You judge them based on what you see at that moment. If they happen to be having a bad day, but are normally a nice person, you will not form your opinon based on how they normally are.

So, I think an opening should capture a reader's interest, but do so in such a way that it remains true to the story the writer wants to tell. If the story is a thirller, begin with a thrilling. If the story is the in depth internal struggles of a charcter, show the internal in depth struggles of a charcter.

Now, this doesn't have to be exact. You can mix and match and vary the opening in many different ways. But a writer should always keep the promises they make to a reader, or else the book may be thrown across the room in disgust.
Oct. 17th, 2009 06:47 pm (UTC)
Great points, thanks!!
(no subject) - jongibbs - Oct. 17th, 2009 06:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 17th, 2009 06:48 pm (UTC)
As a reader I really like to be thrown in the midst..I want to have to figure out who the heck is talking or walking or doing whatever it is they are doing and why. I tend to start everything I write the same way.
Oct. 17th, 2009 06:58 pm (UTC)
Make 'em interested and they'll stick around to find out why. Sounds like a plan to me :)
Oct. 17th, 2009 07:44 pm (UTC)
I have this quote about openings that I printed out from janni. It says - Why openings are hard: You need to begin with two things at once - a sense of life as usual, and a sense of the change that's about to let the story in. You need to do both these things relatively quickly, in some cases even almost simultaneously.

I try to follow her advice for my first paragraphs. :)
Oct. 17th, 2009 07:53 pm (UTC)
Sounds like good advice :)
Oct. 17th, 2009 07:58 pm (UTC)
I like action,especially if it introduces conflict.
Oct. 17th, 2009 08:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing :)
Oct. 17th, 2009 10:28 pm (UTC)
The best way to begin a story is like the best way to begin a trip. With plans, knowing your destination. Knowing what sites you want to see along the way. As long as you know where you're going to end, you'll know where to begin. We can't all have the same destination or the same starting point.

There's no universal way.

The beginning is also not the most important part. The middle is the most tedious and in most of the books I end up disliking it seems like they slacked in the middle and by the end I was just sick of it. Two I could mention are Dead Until Dark and A is for Alibi. Both I thought started out okay, even good. By the end I was disappointed (even disgusted).

A number of classic books begin with introductions of the characters. Save for some that are in particular settings. They tend to start with some kind of weird situation or conflict. Even then, that's not all of them. But consider Dracula, Catcher in the Rye, Treasure Island, Animal Farm, Moby Dick, etc... Even more recent favorites like Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl. Most of them start with some kind of hint or entire explanation as to what the rest of the story is going to be in regards to (or how it's going to be conducted).
Oct. 17th, 2009 10:59 pm (UTC)
I agree that there's no universal way to start a story, but I'm not sure I'd agree that the beginning isn't the most important part. After all, you could have the best middle/ending ever written, but if you lose the reader at the start it won't matter, since they'll never know.

I guess the whole thing has to be good.

Thanks for sharing :)
(no subject) - lavericknine - Oct. 18th, 2009 10:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Oct. 19th, 2009 11:04 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 18th, 2009 03:27 am (UTC)
Great post. Great comments.

As you said, making the reader move on to the next paragraph is my main focus. The way I end up doing that, more often than not, is in media res. And at the same time I'll be intro'ing the character, making you anxious and curious, and setting the scene. The LAST thing I do at the start of a story is describe the character or the scene only--reminds me too much of checking off a grocery list.

That's the quickest way to get me to stop reading, too.

I try to remember that every story (fiction or real life) starts in the middle of something else, and ends in the middle of something else. Nothing starts at "the beginning," not really.
Oct. 18th, 2009 01:06 pm (UTC)
I think it's easier to remember for shorts (especially flash fiction), because you have such a limited time to get in, get it told and get out again, whereas with books, there's more of a temptation to ease the reader in - and put the slush reader off ;)
Descriptions - lavericknine - Oct. 18th, 2009 11:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Descriptions - jongibbs - Oct. 19th, 2009 11:05 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 18th, 2009 04:09 am (UTC)
I have a habit of starting off my stories with weather and landscape. You can learn a lot about a character from how they view weather and landscape. More than you can ever learn from the cliched "guy gets out of bed, looks in the mirror" beginning. Examples follow:

"Jeremiah August was on his way to the Calamite graveyard when he spotted his dead grandfather in the street. He was a little surprised to see Ora Reynolds lying in the dust with his arms crooked, his fingers splayed out, and his lips peeled back in a ferocious snarl, much like the stuffed cougar mounted in Hopkins Store. Like that cougar, the ochre dust of the plains had already gathered on the dead man’s yellowy eyes and skin. Jeremiah and Ora were the town undertakers, so Jeremiah left the dead man to his work for awhile. He returned with a pair of shovels out of force of habit."

"When Joachim Hods cleaned the floors at the hospital, they never gave up the rusty varnish of violence, no matter how much bleach he poured on the stains. The hallways forever reeked of antiseptic and the sweet gangrenous stench of almonds. The plaster rained from the ceilings and walls in a fine shower whenever the gurneys upstairs rolled from room to room, bringing with them the echoing screams of someone who was experiencing mortality one piece at a time."

I also like to start the story off with a name too. After all, the story is about them, we might as well know what to call them.
Oct. 18th, 2009 01:08 pm (UTC)
I've only started one story without identifying the main character - my MG novel, Fur-Face, but that was deliberate.
Oct. 18th, 2009 11:31 am (UTC)
I go for what’s classically termed “the hook” combined with media res. For me, the reader should respond reflexively with a subconscious need to read the next phrase, sentence, paragraph, page, until the scene is completed with a (hopefully) satisfying and tantalizing curtain, generating in turn the need for the reader to have to know what happens next. (Yes, I have a wonderful grasp of the obvious.) Also looking to keep the reader from even noticing the writing itself, at least not until the scene can deliver the goods. I’m thinking there’s no “one size fits all” regarding the elements of successful first paragraphs. They can contain elements that are quite different from one genre to the next, different also if the piece is going for success as a genre beach read vs. the Nobel for Literature.
Oct. 18th, 2009 01:10 pm (UTC)
'...I’m thinking there’s no “one size fits all"...'

Absolutely, so long as it makes me want to read on, I don't care what the paragraph says.

Thanks for sharing, Chris :)
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 18th, 2009 06:18 pm (UTC)
Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em sick, make 'em mad, but above all, make 'em care, right :)
Oct. 19th, 2009 03:56 am (UTC)

I often try to establish a tale-telling voice in the first paragraph, one that says, "I'm going to tell you a story, and when I tell you that you'll like it, you'll trust me, because you like the way I talk." Whatever else you do with it, introduce characters, action, conflict, dialogue, etc., you'll have better luck if you can capture a compelling storytelling voice right off the bat.

from "The Path That Few Have Trod":

My name is Sweeney Todd. Horatio Sweeney Todd, my birth certificate reads; my parents, aficionados of ancient musical productions, thought the name choice funny. They called it Intellectual Humor. I call it Irony.

from "The Evil Gazebo":

The Evil Gazebo sits in the middle of an evil lawn by the side of an evil lake, in the shadow of a monstrous mansion. It is always raining on the Evil Gazebo. And when it isn’t raining, it is threatening to rain. And when it isn’t threatening to rain, it’s still dismal and overcast, though some say that it’s just the smog.
Oct. 19th, 2009 11:07 am (UTC)
"The Evil Gazebo". Excellent title!

Thanks for sharing :)
Oct. 19th, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC)
Depends on the type of story I want to tell. Most of the Yi Qin stories, for example, are (in effect) puzzle stories, so I tend to start with the inciting puzzle - it's rare she's even present at the start of the story. I don't often start in media res, and I've definitely got out of my early habit of scene-setting with weather/description (you can get away with that in a novel, but no way in a short story, really). In general, I feel that the opening should set the tone of the story - you shouldn't open in one style and then "bait and switch" (I've seen this done with people who come up with an apparently masterful hook and then tell another story entirely).

My favourite opening, in a story published in the desperately obscure and no-longer-running Staffs and Starships, was this:

"There is a mountain, where no wind blows.
There is no mountain. There is no map which shows it, delineated with perfect brush strokes. There is no road that you can walk to reach it. There is no vantage point, upon which you can stand, and point to its perfect symmetry.
But there is a mountain. Its southern slopes are warmed by a gentle light, and the scent of jasmine rises from the very soil. There are pleasant gardens there, and lakes whose surface is a perfect mirror of the ghostly aspens that grow upon the opposite shore. It is the Silent Mountain; it is the place where the honored dead walk, so long as they are remembered..."

Scene-setting, yes, but (I like to think) rather more than that. I shall recycle it for use elsewhere, one day.
Oct. 19th, 2009 05:59 pm (UTC)
Sorry, one of my girls kept me up until the early hours this morning so I might just be tired, but the first bit confused me: "There is a mountain, where no wind blows. There is no mountain."

Is that a mistype, or do I need a coffee? :)
( 34 comments — Leave a comment )

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