Starting a Story

A good friend of mine once told me that a good story will always begin with either a thought or an action. My response was that there didn’t appear to be any other kind of introduction available, but there are. For one thing, I never start a book with speech, that is, I never begin with quotation marks. That is my own personal opinion, of course. Some of my favorite authors (Libba Bray, Tamora Pierce) have started with quotations, but note that they are interesting. For another thing, I had forgotten about description. Starting a book with description does nothing for you or your reader. You have to give them a reason to care about what you’re describing first.

Jim Butcher begins his first novel, Storm Front, with“I heard the mailman approach my door, half an hour earlier than usual.” This is a beginning that includes action, the actions of hearing and of the mailman approaching. Jim Butcher is so awesome, in fact, that he follows up his action-type intro with a line of thought: “He didn’t sound right.”

For my example of a thought introduction, I have gone with a more classical example of literature. Jane Austen begins Pride and Prejudice with, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” This is, quite plainly, a thought. An acknowledgement of “truth” through the narrator’s voice.

When starting your book, you need a good grasp of a lot of things: Plot, main characters, the type of book it is (fantasy, science fiction, nonfiction, romance, etc.), and what kind of impression you want to make. My first book ever starts with a thought: “Dying is painful.” In case you didn’t notice, it also appears to have started in medias res, or the middle of the action. I find that starting in medias res is incredibly useful when you are unsure of how to begin your book. In other words, if you can’t start with the beginning, start with the middle, and then work your way back to the beginning. There’s no better way to capture a reader’s attention than to give them something juicy that they can look forward to working their way up to as they read the story.

Medias res is not the only option, however. If you choose to start with a thought, make it count. Again, don’t have the first line be, “I didn’t like Sally Johnson.” Instead, have it be, “I knew that one day soon I was going to kill Sally Johnson.” Even this sounds slightly middle-of-the-actiony because it gives rise to a new notion that I will talk about later: Background.

If you start with an action, make that action count. “The bird fell right into my lap and died,” is an action, as is: “Sally Johnson punched the store clerk in the face and walked out.” You’ll find that a story comes easily with a good introduction like that one. Try a few out and see which you like best.

That’s all for now!

Word of the Day: Trepidation (n) – tremulous fear, alarm, or agitation; perturbation

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