“The fundamental purpose of a narrative’s first paragraph is to make the reader continue to the second paragraph. And the purpose of that paragraph is to make him read to the second paragraph.”
Tom French in Sequencing: Text as Line from ‘Telling True Stories’, Penguin, 2007
For me, beginnings are tortuous things to write. Occasionally, but rarely, a strong one appears off the hop, freeing me to write the rest of the narrative no sweat. More often, though, it’s lurking somewhere in a jumble of words and thoughts, waiting to be teased and cajoled before accepting an invitation to surface.
Apparently, I am not the only one with this problem. At a recent Vast Imaginations meeting others in the group confessed to similar experiences. We discussed the reasons, strategies that we had tried, ones that encouraged us to write on, others that stalled us in our tracks.
In Margaret Atwood’s words, “the story is in the dark”. It’s hiding in the shadows, and it is as we write that we discover the story’s ebb and flow, its characters and true meaning. There is light at the end, but the journey to the end is a winding one, pocked with pitfalls and blind curves. Little wonder beginnings are so difficult to write. It takes many small acts of courage to hang on through the rough ride.
Just where and how to begin depends on a number of things. The type of story – whether it’s fantasy or true adventure, for example – sometimes dictates the beginning. Point-of-view is a factor, too. But mood, style and theme are just as instrumental. Besides transmitting information about plot and character and enticing readers to turn the page, beginnings set the tone for the entire story. Will it be dark and haunting? Soft and ballad-like? Light-hearted and humorous? Those first words set expectations for what is to come and provide a framework for the entire piece.
So how do you find your starting point? Here are a few strategies that our group has used that might work for you:
- Outline the story. Find the first point of complication or conflict and start there.
- If you know the ending, write it first. Many stories have a circular feel, and knowing how the story ends can sometimes indicate how it should begin, too.
- Find change in your story – a shift in action, a revelation about character, a wrinkle in the plot. Often those make good tension-filled beginnings. You can always fill in the gaps with a bit of backstory.
- What is the story’s theme? The theme is the story’s destination and its larger message. Is the story about honesty? Love? Fairness? Faith? Incorporating a passage or scene at the beginning that echoes or contrasts the theme can be a perfect start to the story.
- Write the entire story, telling it chronologically as if it is unfolding by the clock. Put the draft away and reread it a day or two later. Often the true beginning – the most enticing point of entry – jumps out after a cooling-off period.
- Draft several beginnings. Chances are that one will have greater appeal than the others
- Write a key word or phrase from your story on a sheet of blank paper. It could be the name of a character, an overriding emotion, a central location – whatever you feel represents an important part of the story. Create a word map by spinning out connections on the page, allowing your mind to explore possibilities without restraint until you feel an urge to write. In my experience, this often happens at an ah-ha moment when I know, just know, exactly what I want to say.
For more about this topic, you might want to read: