How Shall I Start My Story?

Your story must begin with a hook and a promise, but we’ll get to that later. In fact, I advise you to get to the beginning of your story after it has been written. Seriously.

Recently, a friend told me he was having trouble with the beginning of a chapter in his nonfiction work. I told him to start somewhere else. It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? There is no such thing as too simple. That’s like a woman too pretty, a motorcycle too fast, or a vacation too much fun. What does that even mean?

My first lesson in beginnings came my freshman year at UW-Madison. I would watch my roommate sit for what seemed like hours moving everything except his writing hand. He could not begin his English 101 assignment for the week. The paper remained blank. I became rather famous in that little dorm because my mandatory English class was going well while everybody else seemed to struggle (Thank you, Ms. Marshall, my high school senior English teacher).

The beginning is the toughest part. Many years later, while I was teaching Science to high school freshmen, I required them to write. I taught them what Ms. Marshall had taught me: Say what you are going to say, say it, and say what you said. How can you begin telling me what you are going to say if you don’t know? I told them to write the introduction last.

Here’s how I did that. Suppose my daughter came to the classroom door. (I look at one student, then another.) Would you please introduce her to the class? Inevitably, I would get the answer, “I don’t know her.” Good. Now, how are you going to introduce your essay if you don’t know it, yet?

True, for expository writing I always emphasized outlining. If you have a detailed outline with a thesis and conclusion, you might be able to write the introduction—because you already know what you are going to say. Well, if that is how you want to write fiction (a plot-driven story) then work the outline first. Still, I don’t understand how I can know the characters well enough to introduce them in the beginning of the story.

The answer is, write some of the exciting stuff, first. Write the scenes that come to mind, the ones that stoke the fire in your imagination. Get to know your characters at their best and worst. Allow yourself to wonder how they got here or there—and where they might go from here. At this point, I can make a decision about writing a character-driven or plot-driven (or, milieu-based) story. If it is character driven, I need some detailed biographies. If it is plot driven, I must write a detailed plot outline. If it is milieu based, I must flesh out the rules and other details of the context and setting.

Then, I write the story. I finish it. The end is the second most difficult thing to write (unless you are writing something with bedroom scenes of your parents, as historical fiction or creative nonfiction). Now, when I know how the story goes all the way to climax and resolution, I can write the beginning. I can make a promise that I know I will keep because I already have.

The beginning, hopefully the first page if not the first line, includes a hook. Maybe it is a baited hook, something that entices the reader to go on to the next line, paragraph, page, and chapter. I don’t know how to explain this (another blog?). The bait depends upon your audience (and genre). I know enough about fishing to respect the dual importance of presenting the bait and setting the hook.

Here comes the promise. The beginning of your story must be an honest offer of the kind of story you are going to deliver. Language, style, tone, setting, and characters all matter, but the reader must know before the end of the first chapter, and maybe by page three, just what kind of story is offered.

One little confession, here: I don’t look at the beginning first when I evaluate any piece of writing. For a novel, I open a random page to get a feel for the language, characterization, and movement. If I accept these, then I go to page one. I know, I’m eccentric, but it is a habit developed by reading a ton of research papers, professional and amateur. If it is slutty, I put it down. If it is trite or cliché, I put it down. If it is beyond belief, I put it down.

So, write your beginning only when you are proud of your completed story and you will be better equipped to write an honest promise that hooks the reader. If you do that, you just might hook an agent and an editor.

Keep writing, and enjoy the journey.

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