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Tue Mar 31, 2009 11:57 pm
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Rosendorn says...

The opening scene. As any frustrated writer knows, the opening is probably the hardest part of crafting a story. How do you introduce everything, without pushing the reader away with too much information, or leaving them in the dark with too little?

When it comes to beginnings, there is a statistic floating around: You have three pages in a novel or novella to hook a reader, three paragraphs to hook readers in a short story.

Now, a good chunk of people, upon reading that, will think they have those full three pages or three paragraphs to introduce everything. Right?


You have one paragraph to hook readers. Two if you’re lucky. Think of it from an editor’s standpoint. They have about fifty manuscripts to look at in any given day. They want to get as many done as possible. To look at as many manuscripts as possible, they open up an envelope, pull out the manuscript just enough to read a paragraph or two, and judge the whole manuscript solely on that.

So, in one paragraph of about six-lines, you have to introduce the MC, give us some conflict and establish a setting. Hard? Very.

Actually, a lot of beginnings don’t give us all three elements (conflict, MC and setting). Often, they will only give two in any combination, or, in some cases, only one element is introduced. And don’t be fooled by the length of a beginning. Some one-line beginnings have two elements, if you’re lucky three, while some eight-line beginning paragraphs only have one element.

Sometimes one line is all it takes to start a story. That line can be dialogue or prose depending on your preference, but the first line’s job is always the same: To get the reader interested in your story. Once your reader is interested you might have to go through and explain a few things, but a good opener gives you some down-time to explain things before the reader gets bored.

Another option is a paragraph long explanation. Depending on your story, you could have a two-line paragraph or a twelve line paragraph (Although it would be pretty hard to write an interesting twelve line paragraph). It can be noted that some readers prefer shorter paragraphs at the beginning, since it seems less intimidating. Come the middle they’re so engrossed that they don’t notice a long paragraph. But at the beginning, while you’re still introducing everything, it’s often better to keep paragraphs short and sweet.

No mater which way you chose, the job your beginning has is still the same: To hook readers and drag them through the rest of the story.

One Line Beginnings:

Some stories are better introduced with one, solid, line. This line is an immediate hook to the reader. The downside to one-liners is sometimes you have to explain your one line for several paragraphs. However, because of your amazing first line, readers are willing to sit through a chunk of explanation. ;) Just make sure you don’t spend too much time explaining, or else your hook will lose its effect and your readers will be wondering when the story will deliver on the excitement the hook promised.

Here’s the beginning line from a novel I’m working on:

“Are there any assassins in the crowd, Kerani?”

That’s it. In one line I’ve pegged my MC by naming her (this is a first person story, so I need to name her early) and given the setting that this world is a very dangerous place, which leads the reader to wondering how my MC will navigate this world. It also raises a bunch of other questions about the situation at hand. Why is the MC being asked this question? Why is the speaker worried about assassins in the first place? Why would they hide in the crowd? Remember: A good beginning not only introduces your story, but also leave the reader hanging. They won’t keep on reading the story if they don’t have questions about what happens next.

So, you might have noticed the quotes around that line. Yes, I started with dialogue. Some people like it, others don’t. It’s your choice if that’s the best way to start your story.

The other option is to start with a prose line, or paragraph depending on your tastes (we’ll get to paragraph-long intros later). Take the first line from Daughter of the Flames by Zoe Merriott:

I never knew my mother’s name.

In this line, conflict is introduced along with the MC (the “I” lets us know who’re we’re focusing on during the story). The conflict is the MC not knowing her past. Now, aren’t you curious to find out how her mother will tie into her life, and what she’s going to have to do to find her past?

Paragraph-Long Openings

Some stories are better off started with a paragraph instead of a single line. This is usually an advantage when your story is told as a flashback. It could start with your character thinking about their past (usually the best openings like this are in first person, to take advantage of being inside your MC’s head).

To take another example from Zoe Merriott (The Swan Kingdom)

You probably know me already. In every story you’ve ever been told, someone like me exists. A figure in the background, barely noticed by the main players. A talentless, unwanted child. The ugly one. The ugly one only gets in the way. She is as out of place as a sparrow in a clutch of swans. This was the role I had in my father’s hall.

That paragraph sets reader’s curiosity going slightly differently then one-line openings. Here, the reader is left wondering what makes her in the background. Notice how only one element a beginning should have was used? That whole paragraph only talks about the MC. The last sentence talks about another character, her father, and maybe hints at setting (her father has a hall; therefore he’s a noble of one kind or another).

Another option for paragraph-long openings is to slap us right in the middle of an unusual setting. Take a beginning from a short story I’ve written:

Karen looked out the airplane window as they landed. Three hours in the air had led them to this. The sky was dark gray, the grass was covered by a pitiful amount of snow, especially for mid-December, and the airport was just a concrete box.

Here is the MC describing the view out her airplane window. By opening the story like this, we know Karen is not too happy with landing at this airport. Why? Well, that leads me to the next bit.

The Ever-Important Follow Through:

So, you may be asking, if that’s just the first line/paragraph, what about the rest of the beginning? What about that statistic you gave me at the start of this?

The rest of the beginning (a “beginning” being approximately three pages for a novel and three paragraphs for a short story) is for setting up any elements you have missed in your opening line or paragraph. You use it to sink that hook deeper into the reader, answering their first questions while giving them five-times more questions to answer so they keep reading (and reading, and reading, and reading).

To show this, I’ll give you the remaining opening paragraphs of the short-story above. (Scroll up a bit, no, too far, the quote right above you. Perfect)

“We are now arriving at Calgary International Airport; please make sure you take all your belongings with you. Thank you for flying with us.”

Her mom glanced at the carry-on bag at Karen’s feet. “Do you have everything?”

“I didn’t take anything out,” Karen grumbled. Why bother? she added silently. Most of her stuff had been packed and shipped out before they had left. Moving to Calgary from Toronto, during Christmas break— after her first semester in high school. What had her parents been thinking? So what if Dad got a new job. Didn’t anybody care about her life?

There we go. I have now introduced the whole setting, her whole attitude on the situation, and a conflict (how she’ll adapt to a new semester in a new high school). I’ve made a promise to the readers that all of these points will be addressed come the end of my story, and have left them those ever-important questions so they’ll keep reading.

Now, you might have noticed that’s a grand total of four paragraphs. You’re probably wondering what happened to the “three paragraph hook” that a short-story has. Well, in truth, that’s not always the case. Some short stories take longer to establish a good hook, but they usually don’t take less then three paragraphs. The same thing applies to novels. Some take longer then three pages, others take less. As long as you give us a good hook and quickly, that’s all that really counts.

On Conflict:

Sometimes the conflict you use to hook readers is not the main conflict of a story. In the example above, Karen moving and figuring out how to navigate a new school is the minor part of the storyline. The major part is something rather unrelated; her trying to enjoy Christmas when her brother (who kept Christmas alive for her) is stationed overseas. What that boils down to is: You can change conflict in the middle of the story (or even right after the beginning if the change is slow), as long as you come back to the conflict you presented by the end.

Although, it must be warned that that change had better be slow and well foreshadowed. If you do a sudden shift, then things don’t add up. So if you’re going to change conflicts, make sure you have some mention of the problem in the beginning. (To take the short story I’ve been quoting, the fifth paragraph mentions her brother being overseas. Since that’s still in the “beginning” scene, it counts)

A Final Note:

Once you get past the beginning, don’t forget all the things your beginning promised. If your beginning had a lot of slam-bang action, readers will expect that action (or the aftermath) to be in the rest of the story. Don’t change the subject and put in a huge back-story on the MC’s past love-interests on page five. The only way that would work is if those love-interests are part of the action at the beginning. Maybe they’re the ones causing the pandemonium. Or, they’re the people that the MC needs to rescue from the bad-guys. Whatever reason you come up with, make sure it is logical. Readers might throw your book across the room if you switch styles on them without reason. ;)

Actually, if you can pull off a good beginning, chances are some minor (or even major) mistakes will be forgiven later on. Because of the amazing first few paragraphs, readers (and editors) are more likely to skim over things such as awkward lines and grammar errors. In fact, editors might just spend the extra time fixing everything because they like the story so much. Readers will be so engrossed they might not even notice.

So, if that’s a good beginning, what does a bad beginning get you?

A bad beginning is the poison pill. That’s what gets manuscripts put right back into the envelope with a slip of rejection. It doesn’t matter how great your story gets at page twenty; if the first few paragraphs suck than that’s that. Say bye-bye to any chance of getting people’s attention. The same thing goes if you switch styles very close to the beginning. Both scenarios lead to a rejection from an editor.

After all, a beginning is a promise of the story to come. Make sure your promise is a good one, and make sure you follow through.
A writer is a world trapped in a person— Victor Hugo

Ink is blood. Paper is bandages. The wounded press books to their heart to know they're not alone.

Anything's possible if you've got enough nerve.
— J.K. Rowling