The next time you pick up a book and read the first few pages, ask yourself these questions:
Does the first sentence catch your attention?
Are the other sentences varied in word length and rhythm?
Do you feel yourself stepping into the setting and entering the story?
Do you care what happens next?
If you can answer “Yes” to all four questions, chances are you’re reading a beginning that captures your interest and leads you into the story. It’s all very well to analyze story openings and to recognize good ones, but it’s a bit more difficult to write one yourself. Here are some rules that I try to follow:
1. Begin at the beginning and not before. Sounds simplistic, doesn’t it? But it’s a fact that inexperienced writers give too much “entry material.” They feel that they have to tell the reader every detail about a scene BEFORE the story starts. For example, if Jessica is going to have an adventure at an archeological dig in Guatemala, the beginning writer will show her packing her bag, buying airline tickets, chatting with her seat companion, adding cream to her coffee, and stepping off the plane in the middle of the season’s worst rainstorm. An experienced writer might keep the rainstorm, but will certainly eliminate the rest, letting Jessica arrive at the dig and begin her adventure.
2. Answer the questions Who? What? When? and Where? (How and why can be faced later.) These four “Ws” can show a character with a problem, arouse the reader’s curiosity, suggest further complications, hint at suspense, and establish place and time. They can help your character get into action as soon as possible, and they leave room for you to slip in other pertinent bits of information.
3. Set the mood. This is where you use those similes and metaphors you have been collecting in the “Image” pages of your Goal Notebook. For example: The swollen clouds cast shifting shadows over the heather clad stones of the moorland. OR Cassandra and Eleanore stayed close together as they took their first steps into the cold, slimy water. OR The autumn sunlight filtered through the bare branches, painting patterns, like calligraphy, on the barren ground. If your story opening doesn’t create a mood, rewrite it until it does.
4. Use action and dialogue, but only when they move the story forward. Don’t let your characters move or speak without a reason. Body language and voice can strengthen your story opening — but only when they are realistic and logical.
Here’s an important thing to remember: The beginning stops as soon as the protagonist’s problem is clear. When he/she begins to cope — or not cope — your story’s middle has begun.
Contributed by Marilyn Donahue