The beginning of a new year is a good time to think about how we begin our stories. When you pick up a novel or short story where do you start reading? Most people start on page one, so when you’re writing a story you want a strong beginning to get your reader invested. Ever read the first paragraph and not want to stop? Which books were those?
In teaching we begin a lesson with an “anticipatory set”, which means we try to relate the concept we’re gong to teach with one the student is already familiar with. For instance, if I were to give a class on weather, I might start by asking, “What do you see when it rains?” This gets the students thinking in the right direction and gets them to wonder where I might be going with that setup.
While writing the beginning of your story, consider what questions will be raised in your reader’s mind. Wanting to discover the answers is what will keep them reading. The trick is how to get them to ask themselves those compelling questions. The three common ways writers accomplish this is through character, setting, and action.
Sometimes you meet a person and within seconds you know you want to get to know them better. If your character shows a lot charisma in the first paragraph, you’ll hook your reader. My favorite example of this is in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Begin the story with a character the reader wants to spend time with and they’ll stick around.
Maybe your characters aren’t enough to hook your readers, in which case you can intrigue them with the setting. Create a place where people will want to hang out in a corner and watch what’s going on, like the small town lunch spot Fannie Flagg describes on the first page of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. The reader will keep reading if they feel a strong connection to the setting, but they won’t read much more if nothing happens.
Watch the opening scene of a TV crime show like, Law & Order, and it’s usually not the character or the setting, but the action that gets the viewer’s attention. Remember a story comes about from how your character reacts to a situation, and the reader can’t see that unless you create the circumstances. Sara Megibow, literary agent at the Nelson Literary Agency, says, “The story must begin with tension, trouble or an interesting scene. Description and detail should leak out over time.” But avoid cliché beginnings like a phone ringing or somebody being shot without first setting up the scene.
Also, please don’t begin your story with “It was a dark and stormy night”, unless you’re going to teach a lesson about weather.
Santa Barbara Writers Conference founder Barnaby Conrad talks about how to write great beginnings by using setting to start your novel at the June 2008 conference.