Monday, September 3, 2012

In the Beginning...

So...where do I start??

While reading "101 Best Scenes Ever Written" by Barnaby Conrad, I thought long and hard about how to begin a story.

He dedicates an entire chapter to the importance of beginnings.

I wish I had read this chapter earlier in my writing, say, back in 2004. But now that I have read and re-read this chapter, I feel the beginnings of my stories are stronger.

In The Beginning...

Why is the beginning of a story so important?

If you have analyzed your audience and know what they like and dislike, you will have a better idea of how to begin your story.

Conrad (2007) wrote:

"Remember that a story is something that happens to somebody and the sooner that happening begins, the better"  (p. 7)

A dull beginning can doom your work, but a sharp fascinating beginning can grab your readers and thrust them into your world...and make them turn the page!

For fun, here are some classic beginnings:

From Moby Dick:

Call me Ishmael.

From The Vale of Laughter:

Call me, Ishmael. Feel absolutely free to do so.

From The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All:

Died on me finally.

From The Go-Between:

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

From Elmer Gantry:

Elmer Gantry was drunk.

All of these beginnings intrigue me and make me want to read more even though, to this day, I have never completed Moby Dick!

What's The Big Idea?

The beginning of your story should grab your readers. They should know of your Big Idea up front. What is it you are saying? What is this world you've created? What's the dilemma facing your character?

Why should we care?

If you have to explain to them that they'll be grabbed or intrigued in, say, chapter three and that they should just keep reading...then you've failed to start with a great beginning!

Try reading through the first three chapters of your current work. Did you start with the best chapter? I know in one of my books, my editor read the second chapter and said, "This is really where your story starts. This should be your first chapter."

And once I made the switch, I realized how right he was. The fist chapter now had the reader in the middle of the action instead of a long scene explaining some things about the characters. The story now read faster and started off with conflict and intrigue.


See? Sometimes it is best to listen to your editor.

Now You Know

John Grisham is well known for starting his books with intrigue and mood. He knows how to begin a story and grab a reader instantly.

Now you know some tips to help you start off your story with a BANG or  conflict or intrigue. Always make sure to keep your audience in mind.

I write for middle grade kids who have constant visual stimulation throughout their day: Images flashing on the computer screen, televisions screen, smart phones, or iPods.  If my story doesn't grab them from the first few paragraphs, it probably never will.

I have my work cut out for me.

You know for whom you write. Now, start off your story in such a way that your readers will never forget it!

Your turn: How do you start off a story? Are you strongest with mood? Conflict? Intrigue?


You can find my book and many others at OakTara Publishing:


  1. I think the beginning depends on the book. Sometimes action/adventure/character is important, other times a slower start. I don't think every book needs to begin with a powerful scene. I tried starting my memoir with a scene of my father's first incestuous visit, but a few readers said that was too strong an opening, that people needed to like the child first before a heavier scene. Taking their advice, I began my story with a game of tag where I introduce seven year old Shirley and a few of her neighborhood kid friends, then I mention I hate boys' games - a hint that I would be subject to a big boy's game (my father's), and then I mention school is safer than home over eating ice cream. This lets the reader know all is not pastoral, that there is something wrong, but not slamming them in the face. Thanks for this helpful post.

    1. Good point Heather! The type of story does make a difference. Sometimes just that one line can have a bigger impact than an entire scene.

      Thanks for your input!

  2. I like to jump right into all three--mood, conflict, intrigue--hehe. If that's possible that is...:) You really can accomplish so much with just a first line. You can totally hook the reader and then hold them in place through the rest of the scene. I love the challenge of that, actually. :) Sometimes when I'm having trouble figuring out how to open a story, I sit down and read opening chapters of my favorite books--especially Susan May Warren's. She is amazing with first lines and first scenes!

    1. First lines do make a difference! I'm not a big fan of fiction. The book has to grab me right away or I put it down.

      Good idea about going back to read favorites again for inspiration.