by Diana Dominguez & Lisa Paitz Spindler
"Still lives are for painters."
It took five tries to come up with a suitable opening for this article, and this one is a quote at that. Gone are the days when a writer could ease the way into story, starting with describing the particular taste of oolong tea in the morning or the exact burnt sienna color of a sunset.
Nowadays readers want to be tossed into the middle of the action. They may not know it, but they want to be disoriented just a little bit to help them suspend their disbelief in order to enter your fictional world. Christopher Vogler in THE WRITERS JOURNEY talks about this concept as establishing an opening image or providing a suitable entrance for the main character. He doesn’t use the word ‘hook,’ but instead says that:
"Disorientation leads to suggestibility. . . getting the audience a little off-base and upsetting their normal perceptions can put them into a receptive mood."
In that vein of "disorientation," the beginning should fill the reader with enough curiosity that he/she needs to go on (not just wants to go on) such as:
"She stood over the sink and fed the snake into the waiting garbage disposal; she never broke a sweat."
Not all stories should start off with a shocking, gruesome image or idea. Instead, it’s the "sense" of that beginning that needs to be there — a feeling that forces readers to need to know more. (Note from Diana: This is the best advice and example I ever received on beginnings — because it made such an impact on me that it still pops into my mind whenever I think of starting a new project — came from a creative writing professor whose class I took when I was working on my Master’s Degree. To this day — and I took that class more than 10 years ago — I can’t get that image out of my mind, and I try to impart some of that feeling into the beginnings of my stories every time I write something new, a short story, essay, or novel.)
Still, it might help to understand what purposes the beginning of your story serves before you try to come up with a dramatic hook. Gathered from various sources, below are the top 10 functions that a successful story beginning should accomplish.
The beginning of your story should:
(1) start in the middle of an action
(2) introduce the protagonist and provide a glimpse of his/her character, goal and conflict.
(3) set up the world of the book
(4) show the protagonist in his/her ordinary world for a few brief moments before he or she is thrown into the special world of their adventure
(5) hint at the backstory
(6) initiate the basic conflict or situation of the story
(7) show the inciting incident that starts the plot
(8) set up the major internal and external story questions
(9) show the start point of the central relationship
(10) end with the inevitability of change
All of the functions and techniques listed above have been used to great effect by many classic stories/writers. The first item above says that the beginning of the story should start in the middle of action. In classic epics like Homer’s THE ILIAD, BEOWULF, Milton’s PARADISE LOST, and even Malory’s TALES OF ARTHUR, the beginnings start in medias res (in the middle of it). This is considered a "classic" epic convention. All of these begin in the middle, then fill in the early beginning later. THE ILIAD is probably the best example of this convention: When it begins, Troy and Greece have already been at war for nine years, Achilles and Agamemnon begin a feud over a slave girl, and only later do we find out how and why the Trojan war started. Even in today’s modern writing, something so "old" still captures the most audience attention.
One good modern example that fulfills several of the listed items above is Michael Ondaatje’s THE ENGLISH PATIENT. The story begins "in the middle" — when the English Patient is near death and his nurse, Hana, is ministering to him. His background is a mystery, but the beginning of the book leaves us needing to know more: How did he get so burned? Who is he (he never reveals his name)? What is Hana so sad about? Why is there no light in the villa? Little by little, through the first chapter, the reader gets tantalizing hints at backstory, character glimpses, the conflict, the inciting incident, and the inevitability of change.
One element that kept me going was that the first chapter never mentions any names of characters, except "The Englishman" — the burnt man in the bed. You don’t find out the nurse’s name (Hana) until the second chapter. And you don’t find out the English Patient’s name until very far into the book — in one of the flashbacks. (Note from Diana: Of course, the language itself also kept me going. This is a book so filled with such beautiful word pictures that it sent me in raptures. There are passages that made me cry, and there are passages that I love to read out loud, just for the sheer pleasure of hearing the words.)
The first chapter also flashes back and forth between the present (the villa) and the past (the Englishman’s experience in the desert with the Bedouins who found him after a plane crash — how he got burned) — with little hints about a story even before the desert. Readers cannot help but be pulled in further.
One of Diana’s favorite passages from the first page of the first chapter:
"She has nursed him for months and she knows his body well, the penis sleeping like a sea horse, the thin tight hips. Hipbones of Christ, she thinks. He is her despairing saint. He lies flat on his back, no pillow, looking up at the foliage painted onto the ceiling, its canopy of branches, and above that, blue sky."
In the book STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL by Robert C. Meredith and John D. Fitzgerald (Note from Diana: an oldie, but has lots of good, sensible information that is never outdated), the authors say this about what first chapters and beginnings should do:
"In the first chapter, establish the type of novel you are writing from the tone or style of the prose."
The opening scenes and the language/tone you use in the opening pages of your first chapter should indicate to readers what basic "type" of novel/story they can expect — "a humorous novel, a satirical novel, a suspense novel, a juvenile novel, and adult novel, and adventure novel, a dramatic novel, and so on." This goes along with the above list of functions — especially the idea of setting up the world of the book and setting up the major internal and external questions of the story, as these help to indicate the genre or type of story.
TYPES OF BEGINNINGS
The first sentence of a chapter or the first few sentences of a novel should ‘hook’ the reader, as Sid Fleischman says his article ‘Begin with Fanfare:’ "like a carp." There are four ways to start a scene: description, action, dialogue and inner monologue. Each are explained below.
(1) Description: paint a picture of setting or sketch out your character
Diana Gabaldon, OUTLANDER: "It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance."
N. Gaiman & T. Pratchett, GOOD OMENS: "It was a nice day. All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn’t been invented yet."
Rebecca Wells, DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD: "Sidda is a girl again in the hot heart of Louisiana, the bayou world of Catholic saints and voodoo queens." (Note from Diana: In one sentence, Wells manages to tell us absolute volumes about the setting and her main character — this is a GREAT book.)
(2) Action: describe something a character is doing
Robert Heinlein, LIFELINE from THE PAST THROUGH TOMORROW: "The chairman rapped loudly for order."
Ann Marston, KINGMAKERS SWORD: "He dreamed again of the Swordmaster. He leapt, kicked, and spun, the long, gleaming blade slicing arcs through the air around the ethereal figure opposite him."
Mary Doria Russell, CHILDREN OF GOD: "Sweating and nauseated, Father Emilio Sandoz sat on the edge of his bed with his head in what was left of his hands."
Susan R. Sloan, AN ISOLATED INCIDENT: "Death came without warning. She saw the knife in the moonlight, grasped in his hand, but she thought he meant it only as a threat, and never dreamed he would actually use it."
(3) Dialogue: open your scene in the middle of a conversation
E.B. White, CHARLOTTE’S WEB: "’Where’s Papa going with that ax?’"
A. S. Byatt, MORPHO EUGENIA from ANGELS AND INSECTS: "’You must dance, Mr. Adamson,’ said Lady Alabaster from her sofa."
Dean Koontz, MR. MURDER: "’I need . . . ‘ Leaning back in his comfortable leather office chair, rocking gently, holding a compact cassette recorder in his right hand and dictating a letter to his editor in New York, Martin Stillwater suddenly realized he was repeating the same two words in a dreamy whisper."
(4) Inner Monologue: show what the character is thinking
Robertson Davies, MURTHER & WALKING SPIRITS: "I was never so amazed in my life as when the Sniffer drew his concealed weapon from its case and struck me to the ground, stone dead."
Michael Downing, PERFECT AGREEMENT: "This story has already cost me my father. It was a loss of the worst kind, a loss I can live with."
Carol Shields, THE STONE DIARIES: "My mother’s name was Mercy Stone Goodwill. She was only thirty years old when she took sick, a boiling hot day, standing there in her back kitchen, making a Malvern pudding for her husband’s supper."
(1) Try these writing prompts provided by the Word on Fiction Web site: http://wordonfiction.hypermart.net/backarticles/issue005/openings_to_begin_by.htm
(2) Pick out five of your favorite books from your bookshelf and examine how each author starts the novel and how each author starts each chapter.
(3) Take a scene from your current writing project and try to begin it in each of the four ways listed above.
(4) In those same five favorite books from number two above, look at the tone or style of prose of the opening chapter or first few pages; can you tell what kind of novel it is simply through the prose?
(5) Look carefully at your opening scenes and the "tone" of your writing — do they convey the type of story readers will be reading?
Fleischman, Sid. ‘Begin with Fanfare,’ The Writer Magazine, June 2001.
Meredith, Robert C. and John D. Fitzgerald. Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript. Barnes & Noble Books, 1972.
Obstfeld, Raymond. ‘Eight Great ways to Start Your Scene,’ Writer’s Digest, September 2000.
Rasley, Alicia, ‘Article of the Month: Beginning, Middle, and End: The Purposes,’ Writer’s Corner, http://www.sff.net/people/alicia/artbeginnings.htm
Sawyer, Robert J., On Writing: Great Beginnings, http://www.sfwriter.com/ow01.htm
Sinclair, Elizabeth. ‘In the Beginning. . .,’ Romance Writers of America 20th Annual Conference, Washington, DC.