By Rhonda Browning White
“Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” –Lewis Carroll, from Alice in Wonderland
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? If only that were the case! In truth, the beginning of any essay, story or memoir is often the most crucial part. It’s the part that causes a reader to decide whether to keep going, or to toss the book into a “not for me” pile and move on to the next one on the shelf. Fortunately, with a little work, you can write a strong beginning for your story that will hook a reader and keep her turning pages. Here’s how:
- Don't censor your first draft. The first draft of your story isn’t the time for revision. Let the ideas flow, let your characters chatter and discover themselves, explore the scenery around them, let the story surprise you. If it surprises you, chances are good it will surprise the reader, as well. There will be plenty of time for revision later.
- Once you have finished your first draft, study the ending. The ending of your story should be evident in the beginning. Now I don’t mean that you should ruin the plot by telling how the story ends on the first page, but there should be enough foreshadowing, enough intimation, and enough clues to intrigue and to create a feeling of satisfaction when the reader reaches the last page.
- Introduce tension on the first page. There must be yearning. What does your character want that she cannot have? Make sure your story raises important questions; the how, who, where, why and what of your plot. Create tension by introducing internal conflict (what’s happening inside the character’s mind) and external conflict (the big problem that is happening around them). By introducing tension early on, we motivate characters to act, and we motivate readers to keep reading.
- Set the scene. Tell us where we are in place and time. Let us see the location through the eyes of your main character. I don’t mean describe the color of the wallpaper, the style of the draperies, the method of upholstery and texture of carpeting—unless these play an important part in the plot of your story. When you describe a setting, describe it as your character might. For example, an architect might describe a horizon as a level foundation, while a tailor might describe it as a smooth seam.
- Introduce the character. Give us a sense of the character’s voice. Does he speak in lofty terms, or does he use colloquialisms? What does he look like? More importantly, how does he see the people and the world around him? Dig deep into your protagonist’s thoughts to reveal character and emotion.
If you’ve included each of these elements in your first scene—preferably on your first page—then you have a solid story beginning. You’ve asked questions that the reader will want answered. You’ve piqued interest. You’ve created a character that is anything but cliché. Congratulations! You’ve crafted an excellent beginning!