The Art of the Start

by Brandi Reissenweber

Mom, Dad and the career counselor teach us early that first impressions are important, and this is no less important in fiction. Think of everything that happens at the very beginning of a story: The reader makes decisions about the story. They haven't yet committed to completing it and they are feeling their way around for how much they want to commit.

Your reader is not a penniless and weary traveler who will be happy to take any bed you can offer. They are discerning, with plenty of money for a night's sleep and if you show them something uninspired, they're off to the next inn. You have to work to get them to stay with you. That's the first need for a good beginning: do not take your reader for granted. They've no reason to stick with you if you're not going to tell a story and tell it well.

Many writers feel they have to create a grand and loud splash in the first few lines: "On her first day of high school, Geraldine was run over by the school bus and pinned to the road for hours." While this does get the reader's attention, it can feel too overt and the rest of the story can seem anti-climactic. Don't look for ways to trick your reader into reading on. A burned reader might make it through the story, but they're going to remember your name so they can avoid your work in the future.

The beginning's job is to lure—you want to entice the reader into the story and deliver on that enticement. At the same time you have some logistics to deal with, like characterization, setting and conflict. Here's what a good beginning should offer:

1. Establish the main character(s): The characters you introduce in the beginning will hold emotional weight and readers will expect them to be important since they are the first to appear.

2. Ground the reader in place and time: Nothing is more frustrating than a story that starts all floaty, with characters seeming suspended in mid air. Put your character and your reader somewhere in a moment quickly to abate this aimlessness.

3. Raise a dramatic question: You want to intrigue the reader and keep them reading, so offer something that will make them curious. Invite the reader to wonder about the character or his or her behavior or situation. Character is the foundation of fiction, so look for how you might get the reader quickly engaged in the character's specific conflict.

4. Write well: Ah, you're probably thinking this is a given, but a lot of writers keep their initial beginnings, the one they wrote when they first sat down to write the story, and that's often a lot like the clearing of the throat before a speaking engagement. Show the reader they can trust you to tell a good story and tell it well. Set up expectations in the quality of the images, in the clarity of the language. It will pay off.

Jhumpa Lahiri's "A Temporary Matter" starts like this:

The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter:
for five days their electricity would be cut off for one
hour, beginning at eight p.m. A line had gone down in the
last snowstorm, and the repairmen were going to take
advantage of the milder evenings to set it right. The work
would affect only the houses on the quiet tree-lined street,
within walking distance of a row of brick-faced stores and a
trolley stop, where Shoba and Shukumar had lived for three

"It's good of them to warn us," Shoba conceded after reading
the notice aloud, more for her own benefit than Shukumar's.
She let the strap of her leather satchel, plump with files,
slip from her shoulder and left it in the hallway as she
walked into the kitchen. She wore a navy blue poplin
raincoat over gray sweatpants and white sneakers, looking,
at thirty-three, like the type of woman she'd once claimed
she would never resemble.

The main characters are introduced and we are grounded in a place—Shoba and Shukumar's house. The story also immediately begins to set up a conflict, with the electricity going out every evening. We are invited to wonder about Shoba in that last line when we learn she has become the woman she didn't want to be. This is just a glimmer of conflict—nothing overt—but it's enough to raise a dramatic question that the reader wants satisfied.

If you prefer an opening that packs more punch in addition to achieving all it needs to, you might add some strong sensations, as Kiana Davenport does in her story "Bones of the Inner Ear:"

Lightning, and a woman breaks in two. Zigzag of ions, her
bone-snap of scream. I remember skies crackling. A roasted
peacock falling from a tree. I remember a man’s hair turning
fright-wig blue. Is what one remembers what really occurred?
Uncle Noah said every moment has two truths. 

We came from the rough tribes of the Wai'anae, wild west
coats of the island. Here, native clans spawned outcasts and
felons, yet our towns had names like lullabies. Makaha,
Ma'ili, Nanakuli, Lualualei. In Nanakuli, a valley slung
like a hammock between mountain and sea, I was born in a
house known for its damaged men.

We still see the basic elements at work here: the writing is strong, the narrator is introduced, and the reader is grounded in a specific sense of place. We also get a dramatic question in the last line about the damaged men: who are these damaged men? how are they damaged? how will they impact our narrator? In addition, the story starts with strong sensory details: the “bone-snap of scream” the “skies crackling,” the “roasted peacock falling from a tree” and the man’s hair, which turns “fright-wig blue.” We get an immediate and strong impression of this world and the harshness of it, which resonates throughout the entire story. This gives the reader a clear and direct entry into the story, as they don't yet have to start working to fill in any blanks; they just experience the words on the page.

Beginnings exist to lure the reader in and to orient them to this new world. Use openings for what they are—an entrance into something larger than themselves. The beginning should lead somewhere; the threads that start here should continue throughout the story.

This article originally appeared in Letterpress.