When I was about sixteen or seventeen and getting back into writing prose fiction for either the second or third time in my life, I had a rule for how to begin my stories. It was basically something like “write the first draft and then delete the first paragraph”.
Until I got better at writing, this rule worked really well because I’d often start my stories in a fairly boring way and it’d make sure that they started “in media res”.
This is a pretentious Latin term which just means “in the middle of things”, or something like that. Starting a story this way provides both of the key ingedients of a good beginning, namely mystery and action. Yes, you can use one of them on it’s own if you want to and this isn’t even a concrete rule (more on this later) but mystery and action are two ways to begin a story which will keep your reader interested.
By “action”, I mean that something has to happen, something has to be happening and it should be something dramatic or interesting enough to make the reader want to know what happens next.
This, of course brings us on to the subject of mystery. This doesn’t mean that someone has to be murdered by persons unknown in a seemingly inexplicable way at the beginning of your story (although this technique works well in quite a few TV shows, “NCIS” springs to mind for starters….) but it means that there should be something there to make your reader feel curious or puzzled.
Curiosity is one of the most basic human instincts and it’s the driving force behind science, philosophy and other important things like that. People are curious. Curiosity is a fundamental part of the human mind. Exploit this fact mercilessly when you begin your story.
A word of warning though, don’t make your beginning too puzzling though, since this may well end up alienating some readers slightly. By this, I mean that even though it’s mysterious – it still has to make sense. There are probably numerous exceptions to this, but it’s a good thing to bear in mind.
Anyway, you can use one without the other if you want to. You can start a story with lots of fairly self-expanatory action or you can start your story with a description of something strange or unsual or an intriguing sentence- but they tend to work best when you combine the two.
Here are some examples from my mostly unpublished prose fiction:
Mystery and Action: ” Staring certain death in the face is nothing like how they show it in the movies. Yes, there’s fear but that’s nothing compared to the… Well, there isn’t really a word for it. It’s like when you see a really good show with all the latest sense implants and retina graphics – if it’s good enough, then you forget that it’s nothing but data and electrical impulse transmission. Of course ,even the longest movie inevitably ends. But it’s that half-second of confusion when the credits roll behind your eyes and you don’t know who or what or where you are which is the closest thing to facing death. ” (From an unfinished story fragment from September 2012 called “Quantum War”.)
Mystery and Comedy: “I never got to learn what “propinquity” meant. I’ve only heard it once, it was the punchline to a joke told by a man on a stall on the beach. He was selling badges, magnesium, plutonium, ice lollies and durian juice. But, yes, it was the punchline to a joke – “propinquity”. And it was a really funny joke too because it caused his head to literally triple in size after he told it. The only problem was that this was the entire joke. He didn’t bother telling the rest. Just “Propinquity” and lots of laughter.Even Jinx was puzzled by this. He shuffled across my left shoulder and whispered ‘It must be alternative comedy.’ ” (From “Propinquity” – which can be found here )
Action: “I was waiting for the drop in the shabbier end of Trentport Market. People in tracksuits barged past the rusty, tarpaulin-covered stalls and the sellers shouted things like ‘phone charger, only fifteen Euros’. This was the graveyard of obsolete technology, stuff that even the sweatshops were beginning to charge more for. It was a goldmine.
I looked at my calculator; the clock in the corner of the screen showed me that my contact was late. Ravi would be pissed off if I missed the drop; he couldn’t rewire a Dextek3000Bio-Modem without the right kind of enzyme connectors. I looked around the market again. My contact was meant to be a middle-aged white guy with brown hair. His alias was Dud_Dillinger_II, I didn’t know his real name. Some kids were crunching empty lager cans under their feet a few metres ahead of me and one of them ran off to re-stock. I kept looking around. A drop like this doesn’t happen often. The bastards at Dex tend to line their tech with potassium powder. Crack open the seals and the thing is almost certain to go up in flames. They don’t sell spare parts either.” (From “Ephemera” A cyberpunk novella I wrote in 2010 . My “CRIT” comic is set within the same universe, but a couple of centuries later)
See what I did with the middle one? I added comedy too (and surrealism). Which goes to show that for all I’ve said earlier about action and mystery, there really aren’t any fixed rules. Well, actually there’s one and it covers all of this – The beginning of your story MUST provoke an emotional reaction in the reader. Mystery and action are two ways of doing this, comedy is another. This doesn’t just apply to prose fiction too, it’s important in any kind of storytelling. And, ideally, it should happen within the first sentence of your story, the first panel of your comic, the first few seconds of your film.
Coming up with a good first sentence is an art form in and of itself – but it should be short and it should make you feel really fascinated, excited or curious. It should make you, the writer, want to know what’s going to happen next. It should be the spark which starts the blazing inferno of your story – the opening line which instantly compels you to write frantically as soon as it appears in your mind.
I’m not sure of the best way to learn how to come up with a good first sentence, but if you read enough fiction then you’ll tend to get a sense of what works well as an opening line. Short stories often provide exceptionally good examples of this – since, unlike a novel, they have a lot less space to begin the story, so every word matters even more.
As for my favourite beginning to a book, the perfect example of a perfect beginning to a story – well, it has to be the first few sentences of “Mister B. Gone” by Clive Barker (there’s probably an excerpt of it on Amazon). As well as provoking an emotional reaction in the reader through masterful use of action and mystery (in the first three words) it doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as blow a hole in it, reach through what remains of it and grab the reader by the shoulders and shake them vigourously. Now that is how to start a story!