Strange Photon's picture
Strange Photon from Fort Wayne, IN is reading Laurie Anderson lyrics July 22, 2013 - 10:20am

Like many writers (assuming), I struggle with beginning a story, but once the words start flowing, it all just comes. Possibly unlike others, the degree of difficulty I face every time I try to start a tale is worse than writers' block because I know so much about where I want to go and the journey along the way, but I just cannot get the fucking car started. Even when motivation isn't the issue, I still battle the demons of not knowing just the right way to get things kicked off most effectively.

How do you like to start a story? Is it with an apropos quote? Perhaps a line of dialogue to open with? Something vague and general, from which you can 'zoom' the perspective in gradually/suddenly? It could be anything, or a variety of everything. I just want to know if anyone has favorite types of beginnings for their work or the work they like to read. I've got a story I am dying to write - and not just because the contest it's for will pay out big time if I win but also because I fucking love the story idea - but I can't formulate that first, all-important page/paragraph/sentence.

Thoughts?

Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break July 22, 2013 - 10:26am

Either with action or the proverbial "thesis" of the piece.

Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading Notes From a Necrophobe by T.C. Armstrong July 22, 2013 - 10:40am

Just jump into it, Photon. Find the earliest place in the story you are confident about, and start there. You always can backtrack later (or jump forward). Or, maybe that will turn out to be the best place to start, and maybe, subconsciously, you know that.

In general, I like to start with action, and I like to lead off with a strong sentence that grabs you, even if it's somewhat cryptic. Sometimes, especially if it's cryptic. Of course, I try to avoid melodrama whenever possible.

Also in general, if I start writing and it turns into exposition, I tend to trash it as soon as I find the action.

That isn't to say I always start stories with a nuclear explosion. I don't feel like I need immediate drama. I like stories that start with anything active, really, even if it's a character walking into the kitchen and grabbing a doughnut and brewing some coffee, or driving through a toll booth, or walking down a set of stairs and swatting a naked light bulb that's hanging from its cord. Simple things can be cool and attention-grabbing, I think, and I think specific, fine details can also be a quick portal into a setting.

Kaz I Lay Dying's picture
Kaz I Lay Dying from 'Mercuh is reading 1491 July 22, 2013 - 1:55pm

I often start at a moment where the narrator has to adjust to their own surroundings, like waking up or stepping into a shop or something. I didn't realize I did this until recently, but I guess I do it because it's an easy place to work from: the narrator has to kind of describe things to themselves, so there's a lot of random crap you could write about that doesn't necessarily have to immediately lead to the main action, but it at least gets you writing and it will usually dump you somewhere you want to be. 

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts July 22, 2013 - 2:23pm

By the time I'm keyed up enough to open up a document and start writing, I've usually got a couple lines planned in my head by then, for me it's usually the last line of the story or two or three solid images. So I write those down on a note and from there the opening is me figuring out what the narrative framing is going to be and what POV. It's just a matter of me rationalizing my behavior until I get to one of those images that are probably completely irrational. So I'd follow Brandon, action or aphorism or something authoritative. All of those. I don't know what the hell I'm doing any of the time, really.

Sound's picture
Sound from Azusa, CA is reading Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt July 22, 2013 - 3:58pm

I usually can't start until I have that first sentence down. It's frustrating, but usually once I have that I zoom through the rest. I don't have a preferred way to start it. I've started stories with dialogue, action and the "thesis" of the story as Brandon mentioned. It just has to hook me. I have a few ideas in my head now that I think are great...if I could only write them. A few have mentioned skipping to a part I do know, but that hasn't worked for me.

I know how you feel. It's horrible. One of those ideas is for a novel, my first, and it really sucks to not be able to get it out.

 

Shannon Barber's picture
Shannon Barber from Seattle is reading Paradoxia: A Predators Diary by Lydia Lunch July 22, 2013 - 5:17pm

It varies story to story for me. The only thing that goes for every story is it starts with a voice playing in my head and goes from there. 

Strange Photon's picture
Strange Photon from Fort Wayne, IN is reading Laurie Anderson lyrics July 22, 2013 - 6:08pm

You guys have been quite helpful. Pretty much all the stuff I already do/try, but the fact that I hear it from others is reassuring that I'm not a complete loser who just doesn't get something all others in my field inherently know like the back of their hand.

Thanks for that.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated July 22, 2013 - 10:00pm

I try to write something that will get a lot of confused enough to want to read the rest of it, without being so vague no it crosses that boring/pretentious line.

"It turned out it wasn't a monster I had to pull out from under my scalp."

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer July 23, 2013 - 6:42am

I read an article recently that advocated starting with dialogue because it forces you to enter the scene as late as possible and immediately drops the reader into what is happening. I don't know that I would do it everytime, but I think it is worth experimentation.

Strange Photon's picture
Strange Photon from Fort Wayne, IN is reading Laurie Anderson lyrics July 23, 2013 - 6:49am

That's interesting, Jack. I vaguely remember a teacher once saying it is bad form to start with dialogue, and I've often tried to avoid that, but have never really understood why the teacher said that. Obviously, with this article you're talking about, that bit of advice was much less of a rule than I used to think. Do you recall where this article is/what it's called?

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer July 23, 2013 - 8:04am

I think it was in The Writer. Possibly an article about writing in the internet age. The idea was that because of the way people browse the internet, the average reader's attention span is lower. Between the internet and the format of movies, readers don't have as much patience for introduction and setting the scene. 

The idea was that by starting with dialogue, you immediately create suspense and intrigue because the reader wants to know what the characters are talking about. It also forces you into using action to describe the setting. Since stuff is already happening, you can't take time to rattle off endless descriptions. Basically, you just race right into it.

I think it is an interesting concept. It makes me think about Pulp Fiction, how you drop right in on the middle of a conversation and have no idea what the fuck is going on. "No. It's too risky. I'm through doin' that shit." You know something is about to happen, it's something dangerous, and he's done it before.

If you have a good, snappy line of dialogue to hook it on, I think the technique has potential.

Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading Notes From a Necrophobe by T.C. Armstrong July 23, 2013 - 8:54am

I was taught to never start with dialogue because it lacks context and short changes the reader. It's a bit like slapping someone in the face in that it can be disorienting. The flip-side is sometimes people need a slap to the face (a conclusion I arrived at on my own).

As a reader, I don't like starting stories with dialog, and I think it's because it feels jarring and wasteful to me -- I have no idea what's going on, and since the dialog lacks context, the words not as powerful as they could be.

As for Pulp Fiction, dialog and scene are inexorably paired in film, unless you begin with a black frame, and a lot of movies have done that, but dropping the audience into dialog works in Pulp Fiction because it simultaneously drops them into scene, too.

I think it's important to not keep the audience in the dark too long. Honestly, whether you use action or dialog to hook your reader, I think that's the key -- keep it short and snappy. Nobody wants to step into a monologue, just as nobody wants to step into a long exposition.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer July 23, 2013 - 9:11am

Absolutely. If you are going to do it, I think something needs to happen right away in order to set the context. I'm not really worried about it as breaking a rule, mostly because the only real rule is whether it works or not in your particular story. The rules change over time, regardless.  If it works, you'll be heralded as a visionary rebel. If it doesn't work, they'll say never start with dialogue. It's like you said about the slap in the face. Sometimes, a slap in the face wakes you up. Other times, it just hurts.

Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading Notes From a Necrophobe by T.C. Armstrong July 23, 2013 - 10:22am

@Jack, I completely agree. You be the judge. If you like it as a reader, go for it. In my own personal history, I learned a lot of "rules," but I think all that "knowledge" ended up building some walls in my imagination. And I think that is the absolute worst thing that can happen. For a few years, I was almost paralyzed and had to tear those suckers down.

I tell people just to learn what they like as a reader and go with that. Getting to be a better writer isn't about learning and conforming to rules. It's about learning what works for you, why, and enjoying yourself. That's what I think, anyway, but I haven't achieved any measure of success. So I'm probably not a good source for anything.

I do think, though, in the face of writer's block or imagination paralysis, jumping in and trying to find your own voice in the dark is better than writing within the confines of established rules. If I've learned anything, I've learned that is a really good way to build walls and get yourself stuck.

Writer's purgatory is probably the one thing I'm qualified to talk about. As I said in my first post, just jump into it. You have nothing to lose by writing. Every word you type is progress, even if those words eventually get replaced or deleted. It takes words to make words.

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb July 24, 2013 - 1:54am

I tend to go for a simple approach and do two things: (1) Introduce a main character (2) Make them do something signigicant.

Unless I'm writing in the first person, the character I introduce isn't necessarily the protagonist or the hero, they're just someone I've imagined in a world and I want to get a feel for what they're up to and what the world around them's like. I write with lots of characters and do this approach at various points in a first draft, before I decide who's most important and whose story is the most engaging, then I'll go back and start draft 2 with that important chacater, but with the same two step approach.

Lately all I've been writing are beginnings as I've found myself experimenting with step 2 and deciding what the signigicant action or event is.

In what I'm currently working on, I have my protagonist witnessing a murder from the top of a huge tree as my starting point.

Other starting points I've had in the past with different stories:

  • A homeless orphan, freezing to death in a doorway, tells part of the story of how he came to be there before a compassionate stranger buys him a sleeping bag and some coffee (My favourite story I've written so far - the stranger who ends up taking the kid home with him turned out to be a hitman with a conscience who saves someone from the street after every time he makes a kill. The kid grew up to be a complete handful. I got a 190k first draft out of it but try as I might I can't capture that voice anymore whenever I try a second one. I haven't given it up for lost but for the moment it's shelved.)
  • A bored journalist at a lunch meeting pressures a lifelong vegetarian into trying a hamburger, setting him on a path to a serious junkfood addiction (the dumbest short story I ever wrote, nobody will ever read it apart from a few friends I amused with it.)
  • A young man on a cruise liner wakes up to find it sinking, and that he's been left unnoticed while everyone else got on the life boats, so he has to swim for the shore ten miles away
  • The daughter of a police comissioner steals a 'sky-travel' vehicle and goes for a joyride (haven't actually written that one yet, it's on my to-do list if I ever get my novel draft completed)
  • A guitarist loses an arm in a chainsaw accident (my own worst nightmare - I play, and I also work with a chainsaw sometimes. When I tried writing this one though I didn't get anything I was happy with, but I still think the idea's solid.)

I agree with Tim about how writing to established rules gets you stuck though. If I can't get anywhere with a particular story I sometimes abandon the above approach and just write about the world involved in the story. Because most of mine are futurisic, this is a good way of world building, although I only tend to write this way for myself. Once I've got a few thousand words down about my world I find the characters take over as soon as I plug one of them into it, hence I always at least start with a person, then an event. 

As far as the dialoge openings go, I don't mind them but I don't tend to do them myself. I did once start a story with the line 'You sold me on Ebay?!' but that's the only time I ever remember wanting to start with dialogue.

Strange Photon's picture
Strange Photon from Fort Wayne, IN is reading Laurie Anderson lyrics July 24, 2013 - 5:27am

Holy shit, that's definitely a loaded line that makes the reader want to continue!

Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading Notes From a Necrophobe by T.C. Armstrong July 24, 2013 - 10:27am
Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb July 25, 2013 - 4:52am

Thanks for that link - at last I get to read him talking about Needful Things, even if only briefly. It's my favourite book of his by miles, and one of the ones he didn't mention at all in On Writing.

Strange Photon's picture
Strange Photon from Fort Wayne, IN is reading Laurie Anderson lyrics July 25, 2013 - 7:27am

Finally got around to reading that link, Tim. Thanks, it was great!

ArgyBhaji's picture
ArgyBhaji from Londonville is reading Blood Child July 30, 2013 - 12:13pm

I went to class recently and the tutor cut ruthlessly ! He said write your story then look back and you can probably cut the first couple of paragraphs and start right in the middle of the action !

Mike Revell's picture
Mike Revell from Cambridge is reading The Knife of Never Letting Go July 31, 2013 - 1:58am

I've heard similar things from agents on book writing... you can probably get rid of the first three pages most of the time.

With short stories I like to try and present my hook, the real heart of the story, in a one or two-line paragraph. Something that triggers immediate interest or makes you think what? and want to read on.

The best beginning I've ever seen is probably book one in the Mortal Engines series:

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.

Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading Notes From a Necrophobe by T.C. Armstrong July 31, 2013 - 6:40am

My favorite beginning is still the first line in the first Dark Tower book.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

In looking that line up to make sure I remembered it right, I found a really cool Wikiquote page of first lines.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami August 5, 2013 - 11:57pm

I tend to split sentences apart into lines, and then analyse sentence fragments to see if they are up to snuff. Then I remove the lines breaks. If needed, I continue on to add in experimental punctuation if needed. Like dialogue within dialogue for example.

I also dream about it, then outline it, then remove line breaks.

Strange Photon's picture
Strange Photon from Fort Wayne, IN is reading Laurie Anderson lyrics August 7, 2013 - 5:40am

That sounds like an intriguing yet complicated process.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated August 7, 2013 - 6:04am

Sarah you should workshop that, I want to see it.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 8, 2013 - 1:52pm

IMO - never start with dialogue. we don't know where you are, or who is saying it, so it has little to no impact. don't start "waking up" or "coming to" it's overdone and again, lacks a history. 

i try to start at the inciting incident, that crossroads, a tipping point where the life of the narrator changes forever. it doesn't start with the affair, it starts with getting caught. it's not buying the gun, but it going off in the dark, a shadow falling in the window. i like the "in medias res" approach, "into the middle of things." 

also, don't worry about finding a hook. if it's there, great run with it, if not, find it later. it could be an observation or revelation that comes to your character later in the story.

brandon mentioned the "thesis" and that's a great way to fill out the first paragraph. ideally, the first sentence shouldl be your big arc, the rest of your paragraph either secondary story lines, or more definition and support for the first line. 

give us as much emotion, character, setting, conflict and history in those first few sentences and paragraphs as you can. front load it, paint that canvas, and then pull back a bit at the end of the first scene, or break, to let us soak it up and wonder where the action is going, how that conflict will be resolved.

hope his helps! just my two cents.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami August 8, 2013 - 5:52pm

I actually only worry about the hook in the second draft. But then try to start in movement (not in media res), start in character weakness, and keep it short.

The tricky part is you have to know your character ccompletely.  (Thats mostly revision stage though.) 

Also, workshop?