Recent Posts

Pages: [1] 2 3 4 ... 10
All the Write Questions / 5 Ways to Start a Story
« Last post by heartsongjt on Today at 12:52:50 AM »
5 ways to start a story

Great authors show us there are many ways to start a story. You could begin a novel with a narrator/character introducing himself, like Salinger’s Holden Caufield or Dickens’ David Copperfield. Or you could begin in the thick of action, as Ray Bradbury’s does in his classic novel, Fahrenheit 451.

Read 5 types of story beginnings and tips for making your own effective:

1: Introducing readers to a memorable narrator-protagonist

This is a popular way to start a story about a character coming of age or grappling with internal conflict. These novels typically use first person narration. From the first line, the reader gets to know a characterful narrator.

For example, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye (1951) has a strong voice and clear, disaffected teen persona:

‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’

This opening is effective because we get a strong sense of the character’s personality in his terse use of curse words, slang and adjectives (‘crap’, ‘lousy’). Being addressed directly by the narrator creates a sense of closeness and familiarity. This effect is similar to Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Reader, I married him’ in Jane Eyre.

Another strong example of this story opening type, the protagonist/narrator introduction, is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955). Nabokov begins his novel with his depraved anti-hero, Humbert Humbert, musing on the name of Lolita, the young object of his obsession:

‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.’

Nabokov’s opening is strong because personality and character psychology are present from the first line. When you start a story with your main character introducing themselves, remember to:
•Give them a distinctive voice: The grandiose language of Humbert Humbert fits the character, as do Salinger’s teen’s own cynical words.
•Show what matters to your character/narrator from the start: Holden values authenticity (‘if you want to know the truth’). We get a visceral sense of Humbert’s creepy obsession with Lolita through his rapture at even saying her name.

2: Beginning a novel with crucial memories

Often novels open with narrators recalling memories that are core to the plot. This is especially common in novels where a single, unforgettable event casts its shadow over the rest of the book (e.g. the murder in a murder mystery).

Framing an event in your story through a character’s memory gives it weight. When you begin your novel with your main character remembering an earlier scene, it’s thus important to choose the right scene.

Choose a scene that shows a dilemma or choice, or a powerfully emotional experience that is bound to have consequences for your character. For example, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003) opens with the 15-year-old narrator Christopher finding his neighbour’s murdered dog:

‘It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they’re chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog.’

Haddon’s opening is effective because it builds up to the revelation that the dog was killed violently. It’s effective because it raises questions we want answered.

When you begin with your narrator recalling a key memory, remember to:
•Choose a scene that immediately starts giving the reader keys to understand the rest of the book. Haddon’s narrator proceeds to hug the bleeding dog, for example, so that we start to realise that Christopher is unusual
•Show the reader the memory: Haddon does not just say ‘Christopher found his neighbour’s dog, killed with a garden fork.’ We discover the dog through Christopher’s eyes, and this increases the scene’s impact

3: Starting a book with ambiguous action

Ray Bradbury quote A little bit of mystery or confusion at the start of your novel can help to reel readers in. At the same time, make sure your opening isn’t so mystifying that the reader bails in frustration. Even if the purpose or reasons for your ambiguous opening aren’t clear at first, the action itself must sustain readers’ interest until there is more clarity.

Consider the opening of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:

‘It was a pleasure to burn.

‘It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venemous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.’

The first sentence is ambiguous – who, or what, is burning? The next slowly fills in context: We learn a character is using kerosene to burn something, to destroy ‘history’, but we still don’t know what exactly. We only learn by the end of the paragraph that the character Montag is burning books.

This way of beginning a story is effective because Bradbury prolongs a mixture of suspense and confusion, yet the character’s action itself is clear.

If you begin a book with ambiguous, teasing action:
•Give the reader answers to at least one (or some) of the ‘5 w’s’. We might not immediately know who is doing the burning (or what they’re burning), but Bradbury gives us a strong why: Pleasure. The relish with which Montag burns the books is clear
•By the end of the first paragraph, give the reader a little more clarity, as Bradbury does

4: Leading into your story with a purposeful prologue

‘Prologue’ literally means the ‘before word’. This separate introductory or prefatory section in a novel has several uses:
•Giving broad historical context that paves the way for the main story
•Showing a scene or event preceding the main narrative, whose consequences ripple through the following story

Donna Tartt uses the second type of prologue to excellent effect in her mystery novel The Secret History (1992). Her prologue tells us that a character is murdered, that the narrator is somehow complicit, and that he will narrate the events that led up to the murder in the coming narrative.

This teaser makes it clear that motive, rather than identity, is the main mystery behind the killing. Tartt’s prologue wastes no time in revealing key information that shapes our expectations for the main story:

‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know.’

By immediately framing the story around Bunny’s murder and its aftermath, Tartt’s prologue directs our attention to the ground the coming story will cover. Not the fact of Bunny’s death but the swirl of events that spin out from this crime. It marks out a path into reading and making sense of the story.

Do you want to include a prologue in your book? Ask:
•Do the events in the first section of your book need telling before the main action. If yes, why? In Tartt’s case, giving away key events in the prologue is smart, structurally. Because the identity of the murder victim (and at least one person responsible) is revealed early, the main narrative of the story is free to focus on character motivations and consequences and not just crime-solving
•Would your story flow better if you told earlier events via character flashbacks or a prologue? Try writing a scene as a prologue, then write the same scene as a flashback. Which fits the scene better?

5: Strong ways to start a story: Opening with the unexpected

Ray Bradbury book cover - Fahrenheit 451 Often the most memorable story openings surprise us and make us pause for a moment.

Take Bradbury’s beginning to Fahrenheit 451 above, ‘It was a pleasure to burn.’ It’s unexpected. This is partially because of its inner contradiction. We know that getting a burn from a hot plate is painful, and the idea of pleasure is thus surprising. The ambiguity of ‘it’ means we don’t know initially whether the narrator is describing an odd pleasure in burning himself or burning something else.

Examples from famous books reveal this has always been one of the popular ways to start a story. For example, Dodie Smith opens I Capture the Castle (1949):

‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’

The narrator Cassandra’s choice of sitting place is unusual, intriguing us to read the next sentence. Whichever way you choose to begin your novel, getting the reader to read the second sentence is the first, crucial feat.

Start your own novel now: brainstorm story themes, settings and characters and get helpful feedback from the Now Novel community.


The Coffee Shop / Re: Any Famous Writers in Your Family Tree?
« Last post by heartsongjt on Yesterday at 11:50:32 PM »
My family tree is filled with surprises.

Simon Manning, son of William Manning and Joanna de Chryfold, was born about 1335 or 1344 in Codham, Kent, England. About 1364, he married Katherine Chaucer (b. ca. 1348) in London, England, daughter of John Le Chaucer and Agnes Copton. Katherine Chaucer ’s older brother was Geoffrey Chaucer, the famous writer.

Geoffrey Chaucer's sister, Katherine (Chaucer) Manning, is my  Grandmother.


Hi Jan!

Thank you for the kind welcome back! There's so much to go through, I'll need to carve out some time later to read everyone's work and take notes to provide the best feedback possible. The great thing about these flash fiction stories is that you don't need to get through an entire 70k word draft to submit it for beta readers. If each story is self-contained and flows as a narrative, you can upload and post as you go, like I enjoy doing. See you around the boards!  -Eli

You Welcome Eli. Thank you for being an active MWC member.      Jan
Hi BenSolo!

First of all, thank you for sharing your work on the forums. I know how daunting it is to put a piece of writing out there for critique. I will not repeat my initial observations, as they mostly echo what the others have said here. However, as a writer, I am always looking for constructive takeaway bits that I can immediately implements, so here is my list for you:

-Like hillwalker3000, I think that starting when the MC dives into the water and gets attacked is a great idea.

Your MC is in danger, how will he get out? What is this thing attacking him? I have so many questions, but all you're giving me is action.

First or second sentence of the book, BOOM, he's getting attacked by something freaky. What is it? Give me glimpses, don't give me a wikipedia page. I'm just a guy walking through the bookstore and I casually pick up your book because I like the cover. I don't want you to go into a full history or biology lesson. I want to see how your Main Character, alone (except for his dog) in a vast and scary ocean and coming up against a sea monster, pulls himself out of danger. You don't have to explain what your Main Character knows about the creature, instead, show me how it moves, how alien it looks, its size compared to Markos.

If you imagine your opening scene as a movie or TV show, what will immediately hook the viewer to WANT to get into the rich world you've built?

Action, my guy!

Hahaha, but maybe I'm trying too hard to put myself into the shoes of a potential customer flipping to the first page in a bookstore. I want this guy to buy the book, take it home, then get comfortable and immersing themselves into the book. The first twenty to fifty pages, I'm selling them through action!

-Next point, drip-feed me the information. Once the action is over, once the customer says, "Okay, I'll buy this." then goes home for some reading, you do have to introduce them to the world, but don't dump it in chunks. Gradually give them the information they need, but ONLY when it relates to what is immediately happening.

A lot needs to happen in the first chapters of your book, and it needs to happen with momentum.

As readers critiquing your work on this forum, a lot of us will feel like its drifting and unfocused because there is no initial obvious objective for us to root for the MC to accomplish. After the action hooks the reader, the objective gives us a map to know where the MC is heading.

The reason you're getting a lot of readers saying there's too much information and similar comments, may be because we don't know what to do with the information. We don't know what the MC immediately wants to accomplish, so having all of this information doesn't do us any good.

-Who is your MC, what does s/he want?
-Drip-feed us info as s/he goes about accomplishing the objective

DISCLAIMER: I'm still a new writer, so actually doing what I suggest in my own writing is always a challenge, hahahaha but when I put my reader's hat on, I know what works for me and what doesn't. I think you've got the bones to a great story in a fascinating world. Also, don't ever delete what you don't end up using. Save it forever in an Extra Bits folder, and keep it for reference or for additional short stories to supplement your books AFTER this first one is selling! All the best in your writing, my friend!
Review My Work / Re: Through The Stars: Back To Earth. Chapter 1, Scene 6
« Last post by Bassil on Yesterday at 06:49:56 PM »
JameelaM said, "To make things more personal we would love to learn more about you, please post an intro on the Welcome Board. Let us know what part of the world you're in, some background on your writing journey and how you found us."

I did Jameela.

JameelaM said, "For this particular piece, are you looking for specific insight from the community? Let us know what we can do to help you improve on this excerpt."

Whatever you can offer, it'll help. I expect help in editing and how to master the storytelling art.
Welcome Board - START HERE! / Re: Hello
« Last post by heartsongjt on Yesterday at 06:43:47 PM »
Hi Bassil. Welcome to MWC.

Welcome Board - START HERE! / Hello
« Last post by Bassil on Yesterday at 06:27:22 PM »
Hello, my name is Bassil. I'm from Aden, Yemen. Eighteen months ago, I bought a dozen dictionaries, about the same grammar books, and about fifty novels. The plan was to learn English. Six months ago the plan changed; I wanted to write a novel myself.
I am very happy you posted more of your writing. And I agree there are a lot of new stories for all to read. I read all of the stories but comment on very few- I feel the older members here, and those , like yourself, are more qualified to evaluate  the writing of fellow MWC members.     Jan

Hi Jan!

Thank you for the kind welcome back! There's so much to go through, I'll need to carve out some time later to read everyone's work and take notes to provide the best feedback possible. The great thing about these flash fiction stories is that you don't need to get through an entire 70k word draft to submit it for beta readers. If each story is self-contained and flows as a narrative, you can upload and post as you go, like I enjoy doing. See you around the boards!  -Eli
Welcome Board - START HERE! / Re: My Hello post
« Last post by JameelaM on Yesterday at 05:13:57 PM »
Hey glewis,

Welcome to MWC! We appreciate you joining the community and sharing some of your writing with us.

We would love to learn more about you personally, how long you have been writing, what style of writing you appreciate or prefer to write in and things you have learned about yourself and writing along the way.

Looking forward to learning more about you and seeing you as an active member within the community!
Welcome Board - START HERE! / Re: Greetings to ALL
« Last post by JameelaM on Yesterday at 04:50:16 PM »
Hey Tashnim,

Thanks for joining MWC, we're happy to have you as part of the community and are looking forward to supporting you along your writing journey.

The welcome board is meant for introducing yourself to the community, we would love to hear more about how you found MWC and background on what you have learned from your experiences so far. I edited your post to remove the excerpt from your work as I noticed it was already added to the Review My Work thread so other members can offer feedback.

Looking forward to having you as part of the community!
Pages: [1] 2 3 4 ... 10