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:
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.
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.
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.
|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.
| 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