Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

How to Begin a Story?

...the snag I always come up against when I'm telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it.
—P. G. Wodehouse

Stories, we learn in school, must have beginnings, middles, and ends. Creating each leg of the age-old triangle poses daunting challenges, yet for writers eager to write a deathless masterpiece, no challenge is more daunting than beginning. "If only I can get started, the words will surely flow," wretched scribblers mutter when, with pen in hand, they face the first terrifyingly blank sheet of paper. "But how to begin? Where to begin? When to begin? With whom to begin?"

Finding where a story begins is a philosophical as well as a literary challenge. Every human being has a unique life story that zig-zags this way and that from birth to death, and every zig and zag tells its own story. All these humans intersect with other humans, each of whom has their own big and little stories. When from this dense fabric of interwoven stories, a pattern emerges in which we sense a fascinating unity, we have a story (tale, legend, fable, myth, parable, chronicle, novel...) worth telling. In time, almost of its own accord, the pattern folds back into the fabric from which it sprung and rejoins the billions of anonymous patterns made by billions of people moving through life and by life moving through them.

This seamless connection between stories and their seedbed contributes to the difficulty of finding a story's beginning. "Once upon a time" may be the most popular story opener of all time because honest storytellers must admit that being that vague is as accurate as they can be. The Iliad's bold opening "Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus," focuses on the raw emotion that energizes Homer's whole story, but note how that "son of Peleus" links Achille's bright-lit present to his misty ancestral past. Dickens begins David Copperfield, "Chapter One: I am Born" and immediately nails down just when the infant David arrived:

To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night.

—but within a page or two he loops back to fill in the family history that led up to his birth.

The best beginnings can suggest the tone and scope of an entire story in a few words. Genesis' first lines set a cosmic stage for every story that comes after:

1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2. And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 3. And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.

The cascading opposites that open Dickens' A Tale of Two promise readers broad a panorama of social and political turmoil:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...

In contrast, Tolstoy's first sentence of Anna Karenina promises us an intimate look into the secrets of family life:

Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are unhappy each in their own way.

—and both beginnings deliver on their promises.

To begin Richard III Shakespeare gives these sarcastic lines to Richard, then the Duke of Gloucester:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York.

—and in a few pages we see how well they capture the resentful, self-pitying soul of this monstrously evil character.

George Eliot begins Adam Bede, her first novel, with a lyrical evocation of the act of writing:      

With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far reaching visions of the past. This is what I undertake to do with you, reader.

She dips her pen and goes on:

With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder, in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.

That swiftly, that surely, Eliot's black drop becomes a crystal ball in which we'll soon see the whole novel.

"Call me Ishmael." Moby Dick's opening three words form one of the most famous first sentences in all literature, but why does it work so well? Perhaps because it's a direct order to all readers, an order that puts storyteller and reader on a first name basis the moment they meet. Perhaps it's the oddity of the name, and the knowledge many readers have, however sketchy, that Ishmael, son of Abraham and Hagar, is one of the Bible's odd-men out. However it works, "Call me Ishmael" pulls us instantly into the story of the Pequod's long and tragic voyage.

Re-reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I was surprised to see Mark Twain jumping into Chapter One of his story without giving any background information:

No answer. 
No answer. 
"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!"  No answer.  The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them.

Only on page two do we learn that the old lady is Aunt Polly, on page four that she and Tom live in "the poor little shabby village of St. Petersburg," on page thirty that Tom's last name is Sawyer, and on page seventy that the Mississippi River rolls nearby.

Anthony Trollope calls this opening gambit starting "in media res," and he admits that jumping into the middle of things has "the charm of ease." If, he writes in The Duke's Children, a writer begins a story like so:

Certainly, when I threw her from the garret window to the stony pavement below, I did not anticipate that she would fall so far without injury to life and limb.

—readers will fill in the blanks, figuring out, at a minimum, that the lady and the man know each other well enough to be in a garret together. But the drawback with starting the action with no introduction is that sooner or later the readers will need to know the background:

Is this all going on in the country or is it in town?...How old was she? Was she tall? Is she fair...how high was the garret window? I have always found that the details would insist on being told at last, and that by rushing "in media res," I was simply presenting the cart before the horse.

P. G. Wodehouse's immortal hero Bertie Wooster, the first-person narrator of all the Jeeves stories, voices the same complaint in Right Ho, Jeeves:

I mean, if you fool about too long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere...you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you. Get off the mark, on the other hand, like a scalded cat, and your public is at a loss. It simply raises its eyebrows, and can't make out what you're talking about.

These are only a few examples of how fine writers have tried to solve the eternal conundrum: how to begin? So how will you begin your next story? With a devil-may-care leap into the thick of the action or with a lengthy historical preamble? With a portrait of your protagonist or with an evocation of an exotic locale? What about good old reliable "Once upon a time" or even, "It was a dark and stormy night"?

Every writer must answer such questions on their own, but when facing that first blank sheet or paper (or computer screen), I advise: write something, write anything, but write! Remember, you can always revise your early blundering efforts, so stand not upon the order of your writing, but write at once!

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Monday December 9th 2013, 9:05 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Excellent! Glad to see you mentioned the opening line from one of my favorite authors, Snoopy.
Monday December 9th 2013, 12:56 PM
Comment by: David D.
This is a wonderful piece; the sort of commentary that opens doors, breaks ice, excites the mind, and motivates activity. Beginnings are difficult, but when the first lines are elusive, just write some other part. The story does not have to be written in the order it will be read.

I could not even complete reading the piece before being so inspired that I jumped to a fresh page in my word processing program and wrote some bits of something that has been stubbornly holding back. Thanks for that, Michael Lydon.
Tuesday December 10th 2013, 8:52 AM
Comment by: Daniel S. (Bristol United Kingdom)
Michael, your writing about writing is exceedingly enjoyable and motivational. Have you ever written a fictional story opening?
Saturday December 14th 2013, 12:14 PM
Comment by: James S.
Oh Joy
Another excellent piece from Michael Lydon. How I anxiously await each one.
Always interesting and informative. How lucky your students must be to have you in person.
Monday December 16th 2013, 4:44 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you for these positive comments!

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