Whether a short story or a novel, the beginning is very important. It's probably the most edited and changed aspect of any written work. It has to do several things at once: pull the reader in, create character or atmosphere or scene, or ask a question...
Both beginners and readers often ask ‘How do you start?’ How isn’t so important as just sitting there and doing it; as they say, apply bum to seat and write. Anthony Burgess said: ‘I start at the beginning, go on to the end, then stop.’ While Mickey Spillane commented: ‘I write the ending first. Nobody reads a book to get to the middle.’
A writer has to read to understand story structure – whether in a novel or a short story. Many stories begin half-way through then you get the beginning as a flashback or through memories or character disclosure. Ideally, you should start at a dramatic high-point, though not the most dramatic high-point – you leave that for the end. The most important thing is to pull the reader into your story – because if you don’t, then you’re likely to lose the reader. The reader only has to close the book, after all. There are plenty of books out there, all vying for readers. The writer has to grab the reader so that once involved in the book’s world and characters, the reader won’t let go until the end.
There are countless stories and articles in magazines seeking the reader’s attention. People only have a limited time to devote to reading. They will cherry-pick what interests them. The same goes for books in shops. A browser will look at the cover, perhaps the blurb on the back and maybe the first page. If that first page doesn’t grab the browser’s interest, the book is replaced on the shelf. The words you’ve sweated over for days or weeks or even years, even if they get published, may only merit an initial sixty seconds of consideration from a book-buyer. Make those first words count, make them say, ‘You’re going to enjoy this book and love the characters and marvel at the plot.’ Easier said than done, true.
What kind of hook can you employ? That depends on your story. The story’s theme, place and characters can all pull the reader in. Raise a question in the reader’s mind – a question that demands an answer, which means having to read on to find out. That question can be literal, from the mouth of a character, or hinted at by the narrative, suggesting that everything is not what it seems.
Starting a story with characters speaking is a good idea, as the reader gains a great deal through speech – the character reveals himself by the way he talks, there’s interaction between people, and there’s even a hint of eavesdropping in the character’s world.
Two classic beginnings spring to mind, one from a novel, the other from a short story.
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ – Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell.
To begin with it seems as though we’re getting a boring weather report then we’re brought up short by the significance of the clocks striking not twelve, but thirteen. What on earth is going on? we ask and read on to find out more.
‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’ – The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka.
Clearly, it must be a fantasy, but it demands the reader’s attention as we learn about Gregor’s nightmarish feelings of isolation and sacrifice.
Not surprisingly, both authors have contributed words to the English language: Orwellian, Big Brother, Kafkaesque, for example.
Of course you’re not always going to manage to seduce the reader in the first sentence. But you should be trying to use every one of those early words and paragraphs to intrigue the reader, to pique her interest.
Yes, you’re bound to find published examples where the beginnings are bland or even quite ordinary. Usually, these are written by established writers who can indulge themselves because they have a ready readership. Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities with a philosophical viewpoint about the times of the French Revolution and started Bleak House with an atmospheric description of fog. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because a famous author does things his way, you can emulate him. You’re fresh, new and unpublished – and need every trick in the book to get noticed. That means writing a good beginning that quickly hooks the reader.
Don’t sit in front of a blank sheet of paper, though, just because you can’t think of a good beginning. Get the story – or first chapter – written. The beginning can always be changed and improved afterwards.
The following beginnings come from a selection of my published short stories.
BEGINNINGS – PUBLISHED SHORT STORIES
I CELEBRATE MYSELF
The stench was overwhelming, a mixture of mildewed fast-food, feces, rotten fruit, used sanitary towels, crumpled tabloid sheets of the New York Daily News and God knows what. I gagged and fought back the bile that threatened to lead a revolt of my stomach as I crawled over trash in the shadows. If my husband could see me now, he’d have a fit.
(Published in Beat to a Pulp ezine. This tells you the narrator is a female, probably in New York, and she's married. It also assaults the senses)
NOT TO COUNT THE COST
Up to that time I thought we could cope with anything. Until the snow struck. It wasn't the predicted heavy snowfall but a freak intense blizzard: ice spicules pummelled the canvas-covered trucks, sent up a deafening rataplan from the vehicle bonnets; the temperature plummeted to minus ten degrees. I used my black habit's voluminous sleeve to wipe a circle of visibility in the misted glass and peered out the lead truck's windscreen. Seconds ago there had been a road up ahead, with the prospect of another two hours' drive in these hostile Bosnian Mountains to the Mirvic Orphanage. Now there was just a white wall.
(Prize winning story published in Rom-Aid News and subsequently in Costa TV Times. We experience the threat of intense cold and it's a nun narrating. We know it's Bosnia and she's on a mission of mercy.)
THE END IS NIGH
All the churches in the world were full. And the synagogues. And the mosques. As an atheist I wasn’t surprised that all this prayer wasn’t working. Unfortunately, nothing else was, either. Science had no explanation. For five years now there hadn’t been a single baby born. Not one. Plants and flowers no longer bloomed. They didn’t die, they just never blossomed into flower, their leaves a dull grey.
(Published in the December issue of the Coastal Press. It's the future and disaster has struck our planet. A question is posed, and hopefully the reader will stick around to find out if there's an answer...)
NOURISH A BLIND LIFE
Not long now. My tenacious hold on this mortal coil is weakening but I have no regrets as I look down and for the first time in sixty years see myself, lying there, still trapped within that faithful, old husk. There is no bitterness in me; the poor body served me well enough, impaired as it is: it kept me going until I met her and fifteen years beyond.
(A prize winning short story based on a real life, attempting to step into another person's shoes. Published in a number of places, including this blog. Again, it poses questions and the reader should be wondering what happened to make the narrator so sanguine about his plight...)
She came out of the godforsaken planet's seasonal mists, struggling under her immense weight. She wasn't welcome.
(A Christmas story commissioned for the Gatehouse Magazine. Transposing Christmas Eve to an inhospitable planet. Why wasn't she welcome?)
THE HOUSE OF AUNTY BERENICE
Purple was etched beneath her wide eyes. The slightly built girl in the shadowy doorway wore an eggshell-blue dress and apparently nothing else. Some people answer and look as if they're truly at home, in body and spirit; somehow, she didn't seem to belong, not here in this dilapidated house, not in shadow.
(Published in Dark Horizons. A character who begs to be understood. Why is she there? Questions that require answers.)
A mountainous landscape populated by dragons strode out of the swathes of sauna steam and approached me. Hiroki Kuroda was tattooed over his entire torso and down to his wrists and calves; at a glance he gave the impression that he was wearing long johns, instead of which he was a walking exhibition of yakuza body art. As a member of the yakuza, a Japanese criminal organization similar to the Mafia, he endured hundreds of hours of pain simply to show that he could. Hiroki waved with his left hand; the little finger was missing at the first knuckle.
(A Leon Cazador story, published in the Coastal Press. Surreal image that creates a mysterious character and potential threat.)
He had large eyes, big ears and, surprisingly, his middle finger was very long on each hand. ‘He looks cute,’ I said, lowering the photograph of the little aye-aye. His hair was black and he had a long bushy tail. His eyes seemed to be expressing surprise at finding himself in a cage rather than the diminishing rain forests of Madagascar. Perhaps the daylight conditions affected him too, which wasn’t strange really, as his kind is nocturnal. ‘But,’ I added, shaking my head in mock-concern, ‘my fiancée wants something a bit more exotic. Know what I mean?’
(A Leon Cazador story published in the Coastal Press. Again, slightly surreal till the reader realizes the description is not a man. Starts to ask questions - why the mock concern? What's going on here? Read on, I hope it says...)
Next time, I'll look at some novel beginnings.