Writing is one of those things that divide people into two types: Those who think it can be taught and those who don’t. Or those who think it should be done by outline and those who think it should be done by the seat of the pants. Or those who think it should be done chronologically and those who think it should be done in scenes and then stitched together like a quilt.
Or those who think there are two kinds of writers and those who don’t.
One thing all storytellers (and storylisteners) agree on, though, is that a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Now, just where those appear, and it what order, can vary. William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” hops all around, and where the story truly begins or ends depends on who’s observing what action.
Here’s a simplified version of writing openings.
Let’s say you’ve outlined your plot, and you have a good idea of the characters you’ll need, and you know your main characters so well you can think and speak for each of them and you know the tone you want to take and all that. Where do you begin? Your characters’ whole lives have led up to the climax at the end of the book; at what point do you pick up their trails and follow them to it? Harper Lee acknowledges this question in the beginning of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, when she says:
“I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson.”
James Michener solves this problem by beginning at the dawn of time or thereabouts…
Nancy Kress, writing for Writer’s Digest, offers five suggestions for openers:
1. Start with the first crisis. C. S. Forester’s THE AFRICAN QUEEN opens with the death of Rose Sayer’s brother and the arrival of Charlie Allnutt. How Rose and her brother came to be in Africa and the contribution the Germans made to the brother’s decline are telescoped, and the chapter focuses on this first crisis in Rose and Charlie’s adventures.
2. Start with the last, major crisis. Remember THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? It begins with a young man shooting a young woman in the head, while dance music plays in the background. The rest of the story is flashback, showing us what brought those two people to that moment.
3. Start well before the crisis, with the circumstances that will create it. This is pretty standard: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD really does begin with Andrew Jackson, telescoping the history of the main characters’ family in the region, and the history of the town, then slowing down for the meeting with Dill, the story of Boo Radley, and the beginning of the children’s obsession with seeing him.
4. Start after the crisis is over. THE TIN DRUM by Gunter Grass begins with the narrator in a madhouse; with the narrator’s attempt to explain himself to us and himself by writing the story of his life. The book is that story. Again, most of the book is flashback.
5. Start with a limited dramatic scene. Begin with a scene in which a character attacks a problem that is linked in some way with the later, major problem. LORD OF THE FLIES begins with the protagonists, Piggy and Ralph, stranded on a tropical island; the heat, the rocks, the creepers. Piggy defers to the athletic, good-looking Ralph, although Piggy has all the ideas and Ralph only carries them out. The chapter ends with Jack, who hesitated when he could have killed a pig for the boys’ supper, promising to show no mercy in the future. The seeds of every major turning point in the rest of the book are planted in this first chapter.
It’s a good example of writing the kind of beginning F. A. Rockwell describes:
1. It should capture attention with a fresh, original hook.
2. arouse expectation with a promise of more to come.
3. let the reader in on the who, what, when, where, and why, planting subtle clues, if possible, to the resolution.
4. include a cliffhanger that makes us read on.
5. set the tone.
If you’re starting to work on a story and you can’t come up with an opening you think fits the bill, don’t worry about it. Just write any old thing until you get into the story. Write the rough. Find the heart. Write the beginning last, if that’s what it takes. After all, if the start needs to set up everything that comes after — and it does — you have to know what comes after, right?
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Look up ten powerful stories and study their beginnings and how they set up the rest of the stories.