Great Beginnings 2: Six Classic Ways to Start

In a previous article (Great Beginnings 1: The Five Line Test), I wrote about the importance of the narrative hook, and how it should grab and entice the reader.  As a general rule, the younger or more inexperienced the reader, the stronger and more immediate the hook should be.  I gave a number of examples drawn from kid’s lit of strong beginnings that accomplished the goal in five lines or less.

On a second hunt through the kid’s section of a bookstore, I searched through popular novels looking for stylistic ways to launch a story. How did other authors begin their narratives?  As you might expect, there was great variety, but what surprised me was that there was some uniformity, too.  While plot, character, setting, theme, mood and even genre differed, many  books used similar styles or types of openings.  Many can be adapted to other forms of storytelling, narrative non-fiction included.  Here are six classic ways to start:

 Holes Time-Place Launch

Louis Sachar – Holes

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.  There once was a large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it was just a dry, flat wasteland.

There used to be a town of Green Lake as well. The town shrivelled and dried up along with the lake, and the people who lived there.

In Holes, the location where protagonist, Stanley, confronts his life-challenge is as important to the story as its characters. In this opening, Sachar immediately places readers in the desolate landscape, and quickly moves them into the story with simple sentences that set mood and tone, and imply the conflict ahead. Painting a picture of time and place can be an effective way to begin particularly when location is a key element of the plot and conflict, and sometimes even a main character in itself. Time-place launches are often used in historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy, but also in adventure and true-life narratives where readers need to be rooted in a location or time period from the start.


 fever Conflict Establisher

Louise Halse Anderson – Fever 1793

I wrote to the sound of a mosquito whining in my left ear and my mother screeching in the right. “Rise yourself this instant.”


Beginning with conflict as Anderson does in Fever 1793, sparks interest from the get-go, propelling readers quickly into the plot line. Conflict-establishing openers create a sense of urgency and excitement, but the conflict moment should be consistent with the story’s theme, tone and overriding conflict. It should not be the most interesting, exciting or profound moment, however.  Starting off with too much bang leads to disappointment if the rest of the story falls flat.  Open with something good, but be sure it builds to something even better.


Charlotte's Web  Dialogue Opener

E.B. White – Charlotte’s Web

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable.  “Some pigs were born last night.”


In a few lines, E.B.White skillfully sets the stage for the entire book, introducing us to the setting (the farm), the main character (Fern), minor characters (parents), and hinting of the conflict to come.  Dialogue beginnings give immediacy to the story, making readers part of the action and helping them to identify with characters and their situations. Dialogue-openers can be a turn-off, though, if the introduction is too abrupt and leaves readers scratching their heads in confusion or forces them to read far ahead to discover what the passage is really all about.


Artemis Fowl  Conundrum Approach

E. Colfer – Artemis Fowl 

Ho Chi Minh City in the summer. Sweltering by anyone’s standard.    Needless to say, Artemis Fowl would not have been willing to put up   with such discomfort if something extremely important had not been at stake. Important to the plan.


Starting with a startling statement, a jarring fact, a situation that doesn’t make sense, or a scene that hints of mystery as in E. Colfer’s Artemis Fowl can be an intriguing way to begin.  One caution, though. With conundrums, readers are being asked to trust the writer, to hang on for a while assuming that some payoff lurks around the corner. The writer has to deliver something – at least a partial reward – not too far into the story.


Wonder Narrator-Tells-the-Tale

R.J. Palacio – Wonder

I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.  I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball.  I have an Xbox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary, I guess.  And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds.  I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go.


manica magee 2  Jerry Spinelli – Maniac Magee

They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump.  They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring…. 

Having a narrator kick-off the story gives it an armchair-by-the-fireplace feel. Not only does the story sound personal and intimate, but it climbs a notch in importance, too.  This is a story worth telling, the narrator seems to be saying to the reader, and here is how it goes.  Whether told from 1st person or 3rd person point-of-view, the narrator opens the door by relating a scene, epic moment or a piece of revealing information that twigs interest and sets the stage for more to come.


 Redwall  Action- Forward Start

Brian Jacques – Redwall

Matthias cut a comical little figure as he wobbled his way along the cloisters, with his large sandals flip-flopping and his tail peeping from beneath the baggy folds of an oversized novice’s habit.

No long lingering start here.  In Redwall, Brian Jacques plunges straight into the story, gripping the reader with action. Notice the words Jacques uses – wobbled, flip-flopping, peeping… Action-forward starts like this introduce characters, setting and plot through movement and activity rather than through description. Vibrant verbs are key players here; the pace is snappy and quick.

Next article, the last in this series – Great Beginnings 3: Where Beginnings Hide



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