Notes on how to make the start of a story engaging
Why is the start of a story so important?
Now more than ever, a great opening is crucial to a story. Think what you’re competing with for entertainment – films, the Internet, cable television. Why should someone read your story instead of zoning out to Candy Crush? How can lines of words on a page compete with all that? You’ve probably got a paragraph or two, then – next!
Writing an opening that grabs readers by the cheeks and won’t let go until they agree to stay to the end is maybe one of the hardest, and yet most important, aspects of the narrative process. As an editor at The Forge Literary Magazine, I read a heap of submissions. If your opening doesn’t say, sit back, settle in, the time you spend listening to this story will be time well spent, then I’m going to move on.
So how do you write a great opening?
Well, sadly, there is no easy answer. Writing is a craft, and it takes hard work to perfect. However, if you’re struggling to get a story going, here are a few tips that might help you jump-start it.
Here are some quick tips to improve your openings
1. Spice up your voice
Writers often seem to forget that reading a story is very similar to listening to a story: if you’re bored by the narrator’s voice, then you won’t be interested in what they have to say. It’s not just the what of the story that’s important, but the how. No one wants to read a story with bland sentence constructions, safe similes and stock descriptions.
A great example of setting up the voice in the opening is in Lorrie Moore’s Debarking:
Ira had been divorced for six months and still couldn’t get his wedding ring off. His finger had swelled doughily, a combination of frustrated desire, unmitigated remorse, and misdirected ambition was how he explained it. I’m going to have my entire finger surgically removed, he told friends. The ring (supposedly gold, though now that everything he had ever received from Marilyn had been thrown into doubt, who knew?) cinched the blowsy fat of his finger, which had grown twistedly around it like a fucking happy challah.
Look at the diversity of the sentence constructions, the originality of the imagery. The first sentence is sharp, to the point, setting up the character (Ira) and his situation (recently divorced.) The second sentence is more complex, with an original comparison in the first clause (the flesh of his finger like dough), and a trio of character-building reasons for how it ended up this way. Following that is a short, comic sentence – a joke delivered by the protagonist. The paragraph is completed with a longer sentence, broken up by a bracketed question that almost swings the POV into free indirect speech, and ending with a relative clause that expands on the earlier dough image by comparing the flesh of his finger to challah, a kind of Jewish bread.
The voice is sharp, funny, interesting, filled with new and arresting images. It has rhythm. It carries the tone of the story, telling the reader what to expect and giving them confidence that the minutes or hours they’ll spend in the narrator’s company will not be wasted.
If you can get the voice right in the opening, then you are halfway there to hooking that reader.
2. Open with a question
Happy with the voice, but still don’t think your opening is grabby enough?
Of course, the start to every story should suggest questions to the reader – and you hope they hang around long enough to get the answers – but here’s a quick tip guaranteed to snatch the reader’s attention: open with a question. An actual question. Not an oblique one, such as with the Moore quote (why can’t he get his ring off?). One ending with a “?”
A great example is the opening line from A.M Homes’ May We Be Forgiven:
Do you want my recipe for disaster?
Yes please A.M Homes! I mean, who wouldn’t want to read on after that line? Any reader is going to want to know both the nature of the disaster, and how it happened.
3. Put a character under pressure
You’ve interested the reader with your voice and story questions – but then it goes a bit flat. Readers aren’t even halfway down the first page before swiping to the next story. Now’s the time to put your characters to work.
All great stories share one thing: characters. They are the driftwood we cling to in the ocean of the author’s imagination. But we don’t just want to see a character milling about, making breakfast, scratching his ass in the shower – we want to see them under pressure, forced to act.
Let’s look again at the A.M Homes example. The opening line leads into a family scene where the main character, Harry, is helping to prepare Thanksgiving dinner at his brother’s house. There are tensions everywhere: Harry hates his brother, George, and is having marital problems with his wife, Claire; George is having his issues with his own wife, Jane; the house is filled with plastic people from George’s office. The situation is pressured – but is that enough? No! Of course not. A pressured situation will only hold interest for so long. And sure enough, at the end of the second page something happens that shifts this pressure onto the characters: Jane makes a pass Harry in the kitchen. While the rest of their families tuck into the turkey, they share a passionate kiss over the washing up.
Will their spouses find out? Will the kiss turn into an affair? I want answers!
It also helps that she writes with such a sharp, funny voice. Here are a couple of lines from the first page, a description of George’s children:
Nathaniel, twelve, and Ashley, eleven, sat like lumps at the table, hunched, or more like curled, as if poured into their chairs, truly spineless, eyes focused on their small screens, the only thing in motion their thumbs — one texting friends no one has ever seen and the other killing digitized terrorists. They were absent children, absent of personality, absent of presence, and, except for holidays, largely absent from the house.
The first sentence hones in on the image of the children’s eyes like a camera moving in for a close up. The descriptions of what they’re doing on the phones are witty and catty. The second sentence makes a great play on the word ‘absent’, setting it up to use as a punch line in the final clause.
4. Deny characters what they want
Say your story simply doesn’t have that kind of pressure situation at the start – is there anything else you can do to snare a reader’s attention?
Well yes, there is: simply deny a character what they want. This is more of a trick, like opening with an actual question, but it’s effective.
Here’s a literary example, the opening line from Flannery O’Conner’s A Good Man is Hard to Find:
The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.