I’ve mentioned the importance of the story opening often enough that you’re probably beginning to wonder why I left it until now to describe. The reason is that the clearer an idea you have of what the rest of the story looks like, the easier it is to see what will bring a reader in with the right set of expectations.
Hooking the reader quickly is essential. Any words spent before the reader is engaged are wasted, and make it likely the reader will move on to something else. Before we even get to the regular reader, we have to persuade the slush readers and editors that this is the one manuscript out of 20, or perhaps 50, that they want to publish. The story needs their attention from the first word.
I’ve tried to focus this series on what to do rather than what not to do, but I’ve done enough critiquing to notice a distinct pattern in how developing writers approach the beginning. I’m going to lay it out so if you recognise yourself in the progression, you can skip the rest of it.
Stage 1 The writer is convinced that the reader won’t be able to understand the story without several paragraphs of explanation up front. It might be about the magical or historical world of the story, it might be about the life of the protagonist up to this point, it might be an explanation of why they don’t want to be on the top deck of the Number 47 bus. It doesn’t matter. None of it gives the reader any reason to care. A patient reader will skim until something happens. A slush reader is not a patient reader so they will reject it.
Stage 2 The writer has been told not to start with explanations, but is still convinced the reader can’t cope without them. Their solution is to start the story with two or three sentences of the protagonist doing something, though not usually anything interesting. They are may be walking or driving toward something that will be important later, or possibly doing some household chore that will be interrupted. In the second paragraph, the author puts the protagonist into suspended animation and launches into paragraphs of explanation while the reader skims ahead for something to happen. Or goes away and reads something else.
Stage 3 The writer has now grasped that long paragraphs of explanation are not a good idea. He’s probably received some feedback suggesting he starts with action so by gum, action there will be. Screaming sirens! Hysterical arguments! Blazing gunfire! Steamy sex! Thunderbolts and lightning! Meanwhile, the reader has no idea what is going on or why they should care about it.
I put my hand up to stage 3 in Cassandra’s Cargo. Mercifully, my stages 1 and 2 have not seen the light of day.
There’s nothing wrong with starting the first draft with any of these if that’s what it takes to get you started. Sometimes, starting with explanations helps to clear the mind. What is wrong is for any of these to be seen by anyone other than the writer. Before the story goes before anyone else, they need to go.
Lead with the tripod
Having moved on from the common mistakes, the key question is what is going to work. The story opening needs to orientate to reader to the world of the story, but without the reader knowing they are being explained to. That’s a hard trick to pull off, which is why the first hundred words involve more work than any other hundred words in the story.
I find the best approach is to lead with the three legs of the tripod. Introduce the protagonist, introduce the world in which the story is set and introduce the main problem that the protagonist is going to spend his time dealing with. I use the word ‘introduce’ rather than ‘explain’ deliberately. A single detail from each is all that’s needed to orientate the reader at this stage. The reader will get through the first hundred words in less than a minute, and they won’t expect to know everything in that time. What the reader wants is to have an idea of where they are, who they’re with and why they’re there. The latter is particularly important because it tells the reader what the story is about, and they will read everything else more closely with that context.
This is a place where short stories differ from novels. Some novels begin with a prologue or a subplot that introduces the characters and the setting, and the main plot problem may not be introduced until a chapter or two in. A short story simply doesn’t have that space. It has to hit the ground running.
Given that I have the previews of most of my stories here, you’ll be able to see how successfully I’ve followed my own advice. I’ll admit to cringing as I point you in that direction, as several of them were published before I’d worked all this out and I wouldn’t blame you for seeing them as examples of how not to do it.
Now we’ve reached the point where we can consider the finished product rather than the process, we can look at examples other than my own. I hope that’s as much a relief to you as it is to me.
The first hundred (actually 107, but what the hell?) words of Greg Egan’s Yeyuka:
On my last day in Sydney, as a kind of farewell, I spent the morning on Bondi Beach. I swam for an hour, then lay on the sand and stared at the sky. I dozed off for a while, and when I woke there were half a dozen booths set up amid the sun bathers, dispensing the latest fashion: solar tattoos. On a touch-screen the size of a full-length mirror, you could choose a design and then customise it, or create one from scratch with software assistance. Computer-controlled jets sprayed the undeveloped pigments onto your skin, then an hour of UV exposure rendered all the colours visible.
Egan starts by telling us his protagonist is leaving, which tells us this is a character in some sort of transition. It’s safe to assume that points to the plot problem. Being science fiction, it spends a fair amount of the first hundred words orientating us to the world. The tattoo technology is ahead of what we have now but not so advanced as to appear magical, so it’s the near future. We know that this a society with a few more gadgets, but people still lie around on Bondi Beach, so it’s not so very different to our own.
All it tells us about the protagonist is that he is leaving and likes lying on the beach. It doesn’t even clarify the gender, though that needs to get in there very soon afterward. It gives us just enough information to be able to move on, and it tells us what to pay attention to as we do.
Here’s Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia by Rachel Swirsky (106 words this time):
I didn’t hear the first knock. It blended into the patter of rain against my window.
The full moon was shining brightly that night, penetrating storm clouds and my oiled cloth blinds to cast white pallor into my studio. I wouldn’t ordinarily have been working so late, but my commission was overdue so the moonlight was a boon. Supplementing with candles and my oil lamp, I had just enough light to work by.
The painting showed a winter landscape of my patron’s fortress. Massive stone cylinders rose out of relentless white. A frozen river wended diagonally from the eastern tower to the edge of the panel.
We see the protagonist painting by moonlight. Could Swirsky have come up with a more vivid picture of her? The fact that she’s painting by candles and oil lamp rather than gas or electric light hints that this is a pre-industrial society, which is reinforced by the idea of a patron who own a fortress, so there we have our introduction to the world. The introduction to the plot problem is there, albeit rather subtle. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that it revolves around a painting of the patron. The elements are in the opening so they are fixed in the reader’s mind, even if their importance is not spelled out yet.
Get the first hundred words right and you have the reader’s attention. Yet if the most important hundred words are the first, the most important words among them are the first sentence. Those few words are so important that they bear even more scrutiny, and will receive it in my next post.
Without looking at how you actually started your draft, write out a new opening to it. Make sure you bring in the protagonist, the setting and the plot problem within the first hundred words. Then integrate the new opening into the story. You may need to rewrite more than 100 words to do that, which is fine as long as you hit the right points in the first hundred.