For a writer, the beginning of any story – long or short, fiction or non-fiction – is a challenge. Where to start? What to include? What not to include?
In To Begin the Beginning (from `Telling True Stories`, Penguin, 2007), DeNeen L. Brown writes: “The beginning is important, because you are establishing a relationship with the reader. You are asking to be invited in for a while….Beginning to read a story should feel like embarking on a journey, starting toward a destination.”
A strong beginning pulls readers forward. A limp start leaves readers – especially youngsters – floundering and wondering if it’s even worth plowing ahead. This is particularly true for boys who might be reluctant readers. A few lines, a paragraph or two at most, and if they’re not immersed in the story, many less proficient and inexperienced readers will simply give up. The struggle is too great, the payoff too intangible and remote. As writers of children’s material, it helps to remember the competition we face: video games, television, the Internet and social media all offer gratification with less effort
Here are a few things we know about beginnings:
- The shorter the story, the tighter the beginning. When the entire piece is but a few hundred words, there is far less room for play and no time to waste.
- The younger the age group, the more immediate and action-oriented the beginning should be. Experienced teens who are savvy readers might tolerate lingering scene descriptions and lengthy dialogue, but not so less experienced and more impatient 7-12 year olds.
- Besides enticing the reader and introducing the story-line, great beginnings also establish mood, point-of-view and voice.
- In Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Margaret Atwood gives us a glimpse of what it takes to write a proper beginning: “The story is in the dark. That is why inspiration is thought of as coming in flashes. Getting into a narrative – into the narrative process – is a dark road. You can’t see your way ahead…..” Because as story-writers we are working in the ‘dark’, often we cannot see the beginning until we reach the end Best beginnings tend to surface during revision after we have struggled through a draft.
Recently, I browsed through the children’s section of a bookstore, pulling novels off shelves to scan the first lines in some popular books written for 7-12 year olds. How did the pro’s begin? I wondered. To emulate the experience of young readers, I gave each book a maximum of five lines to establish the basics and draw me into the story. Anything longer and the book went back on the shelf.
Here are ten beginnings that passed my rudimentary test. Each one teased, prodded or enticed me with a creative hook to read further, sometimes in less than my 5 allotted lines. Do you agree with my selection?
More about beginnings in Great Beginnings 2: Classic Ways to Start