Storytelling – A Beginner’s Guide #3: How To Start A Story
Read the title?
Let’s start a story.
1. In The Thick Of It
Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head.
Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson
You’ve probably heard it as “start in the middle of your story”. Kurt Vonnegut goes further: “start as close to the end as possible.” Wherever you choose to start, make sure it’s in the thick of things. Skip to the action. (Here, Stephenson adds to the in-your-face immediacy by making it present tense: Enoch “rounds” the corner, the executioner “raises” the noose).
Now we need to know what happens next – and the author has us.
NON-FICTION: Instead of having a place-setting introduction, why not just get on with it? Start with the meat of your article, and give the reader just enough information to want to keep reading – then do your introduction, when they’re already hooked.
There was a wall. It did not look important.
The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin
Wet Paint – Don’t Touch. No Graffiti Allowed. Do Not Push This Button!
Or, best of all, the brain of Homer Simpson:
Homer’s Brain: Don’t you get it? You’ve gotta use reverse psychology.
Homer: That sounds too complicated.
Homer’s Brain: OK, don’t use reverse psychology.
Homer: All right, I will!
If you want your reader to become deeply and immediately interested in something – interested enough to keep reading – then start by telling them how utterly unworthy of their interest it is.
NON-FICTION: Start by talking about how you’re not going to spend any time talking about something in particular – then slyly “give in”, and talk about it. Your readers will eat it up.
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
Fiction writers usually love everyone they write about. Particularly the bad guys. Yet sometimes they just can’t resist sticking the knife in. Sometimes that’s because everyone loves reading about spectacularly awful people – but the best authors victimize their characters for a reason. In this instance, C.S. Lewis isn’t permanently writing Scrubb off as odious and vile – he’s setting him up for redemption. By book’s end he’s one of the gang – and a hint of his transformation from pathetic oik to noble hero can be seen in that telling word “almost”.
NON-FICTION: Label your first impression of something as Bad and Awful, then present an argument as to why it’s Not That Bad Really – or, alternately, Even Worse Than I Inititally Thought. Evolve your opinion and take the reader along for the ride.
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
Emma, Jane Austen
Character assassination is far more effective when it masquerades as praise and approval, as beautifully illustrated by Yes Minister. The first line of Austen’s Emma is a sly example of this: note the word “handsome” rather than “beautiful”, suggesting to its 19th century audience a masculine, wilful nature. Note the word “clever”, a word that still has double-edged connotations today. She “seemed to” display the best qualities a person could have, when the author (who should know) could have said she did have those qualities. And “nearly twenty-one years…with very little to distress or vex her”? The word “unworldly” hangs invisibly over the text. Emma is being thoroughly stitched up by the narrator.
NON-FICTION: You wouldn’t want to besmirch the character of something or someone in real life, would you? Of course not. But hey, if you were planning to, this is how. I’m just saying.
I have been accused of being anal retentive, an over-achiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things.
Millicent Min, Girl Genius, Lisa Yee
Oldest and most effective trick in the book – make them spit the tea they’re drinking.
NON-FICTION: Good humour will entice people to read anything.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
1984, George Orwell
Orwell’s 1984 is a world we almost recognise…until the clocks start chiming. At that moment, the rug is pulled out from under our imaginations, and we read on in the hope that we find something new to stand on. This isn’t the same as baffling them (see 9), in which we are presented with some bizarre situation or form of character behaviour. This is the world itself that is freaking out.
NON-FICTION: Hmm. Tricky. I’m leaving this one completely up to you.
You must have stopped wondering what happened to me a long time ago; I know it has been many years. I have the time to write here, and what looks like a good chance to get what I write to where you are, so I am going to try. If I just told everything on a couple of sheets you would not believe most of it. Hardly any of it, because there are many things that I have trouble with myself. So what I am going to do instead is tell everything. When I have finished, you still may not believe me; but you will know all that I do. In some ways, that is a lot. In others, practically nothing. When I saw you sitting by our fire – my own brother – there on the battlefield. . . Never mind. I will get to it. Only I think it may be why I am writing now.
The Knight, Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe is a master of deception. He hides his cards until the last moment, and then lays them all down on the table for you with a flourish, letting you see how they fit together in a head-rush of revelation. Consider the above paragraph. What does it actually explain? Answer: almost nothing. It’s the most frustrating form of literary teasing, the kind of question-engineering that ABC’s Lost did so well before it started screwing up the answering of those questions. We’re wet-wired to love mystery and to be thrilled by what we don’t yet know – and the most powerful opening hook you can use on a reader is to present them with a question they can only get answered if they keep reading.
NON-FICTION: If your article is designed to answer a question, don’t answer it immediately. In fact, open more questions with your opening paragraph. Hook them good.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A sibling of the teasing mystery is a question that is immediately ignored. Done badly, it’s frustrating enough to have the reader throw the book down in disgust – but Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s most famous and best-loved novel opens with such an aside, and he continues to jump sideways and backwards as the book progresses. He structures the whole book this way, and that’s party why it’s such a joy to read. Winding is dangerous; you risk leaping around so much that the reader has no clue where they are – a little like following the conversational thread of my gran.
You know him down the shop with the hair, well he said, oh, that reminds me, I read in the paper that before Jimmy Saville died he decided to give money to, oh, you know, they have a thing in London – speaking of which, I’ve got a book for you, no, tell a lie, it’s not him with the hair…
NON-FICTION: If you can lead your readers astray, make it more than a simple journey from A to B to get the answers they need, and if you can keep that journey well-signposted, their brains will have more fun.
Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.
Waiting – Ha Jin
Problem: how can a man divorce his wife more than once? It’s possible (maybe even common in, say, certain corners of Vegas) but it requires a lot of remarrying. More likely is that Lin Kong fails to divorce his wife every year – but why? How on earth can you continually fail to divorce someone, and why only every summer?
In a world we’re somewhat familiar with, why are people behaving in such strange ways? Ha Jin’s U.S. National Book Award winning novel Waiting is all about answering these questions, and it does it in a terribly sad way.
NON-FICTION: Present your audience with a situation they’re familiar with, but have something or someone within it acting in a puzzling manner, and they’ll want to understand why they’re doing that, within the rules of a world they understand. This is on the line between reality and fantasy, but since this is non-fictional reality you’re dealing with, your readers know there has to be a sensible explanation. Drag them in before you provide it.
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
The Crow Road, Iain Banks
The tale of Prentice McHoan starts with a bang – and there’s a perfectly rational – if macabre – reason why his grandmother goes *BLAM*. Read the book to find out (and also because it’s the best work of a truly brilliant writer).
NON-FICTION: Look at how Maureen Tkacik opened her fascinating, merciless post at The Great Debate earlier this year:
Steve Jobs smelled so foul that none of his co-workers at Atari in the seventies would work with him. Entreating him to shower was usually futile; he’d inevitably claim that his strict vegan diet had rid him of body odor, thus absolving him of the need for standard hygiene habits. Later, friends would theorize that he had been exercising what would prove a limitless capacity for sustained and gratuitous lying that came to be nicknamed the “reality distortion field.”
– “The Book Of Jobs”, February 22nd 2012
Offensive? Certainly – and not unrepresentative of the article as a whole. Brilliantly arresting? Oh, you bet.
Disclaimer: those book titles up there have Amazon affiliate links on them, so I can buy more books and can write even more of these posts. Just so you know.