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Where Does Your Story Begin?

Photo on <a href="https://visualhunt.com/re/5e2217">Visual Hunt</a>I read a lot of book manuscripts, and I’m here to tell you there are some story openers in danger of being used more often than “once upon a time.” Here are some beginnings I see frequently:

• Character waking up
• Character looking out a window and thinking about the weather
• Character thinking about the setting, reviewing the objects in a room
• Character thinking or saying out loud, “This isn’t happening.”
• Character pondering her life, her appearance (while looking in a mirror), or the day ahead in inner monologue
• “When [name] woke up that morning, he never imagined by the end of the day, he would end up [fill in the blank]”

I bet you think I’m going to tell you not to write one of these frequently used story openers.

I’m not.

What I want to emphasize is that they’re oh-so-common. So unless you want to blend into the crowd, if you’re going to use one of these openings in your final work, you’ll want to make sure you’ve executed it effectively—in an uncommon way.

Starting a novel with a cliché (“It was love at first sight”) worked out well for Joseph Heller in Catch 22, and the waking-from-a-dream opener (“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams…”) made The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka a classic.

But here’s something else.

Did you notice that all the openings I listed have a character sitting and thinking alone? I have a theory about that. What’s the person who is writing doing? Sitting and thinking alone! Maybe that’s why these openings occur to writers so easily.

Here’s a suggestion.

Write the sitting and thinking opening—if that’s what comes to you immediately—to get your writing pump primed. It’s a way for you to get started, a way to initiate your flow of words and ideas. It’s a way to begin solving the problems that writing a story present.

Getting it right the first time isn’t important. Getting started and getting in the groove are very important.

Eventually, after you’ve completed a draft and during revision, I’ll bet you’ll find where your story really begins.  And I’ll bet you find it begins at some point after all that sitting and thinking.

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writer, editor, website designer

Mary Ann is the editor of The Florida Writer (the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association) and MAD’s Monday Muse. She is also a writer, editor, and organizer of writing workshops with 30+ years’ experience in publishing and writing consulting. Besides working one-to-one with writers who are developing books, she designs author websites. Website

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11 Responses

  1. Mary Ellen Gambutti
    | Reply

    In media res!

    • Mary Ann de Stefano
      | Reply

      Yes, but sometimes it takes a lot of warm-up writing in draft to actually discover where that place is.

  2. Beda Kantarjian
    | Reply

    I love “getting it right the first time isn’t important.” Not realizing that stops so many writers in their track.

    • Mary Ann de Stefano
      | Reply

      Yes! I always say: Make a mess. You can always clean it up later. And I agree with whoever it was that said your first draft is for learning what your story is about.

  3. Jerry Tabbott
    | Reply

    Interesting. I originally started my first novel with one my protagonists alone in the wheelhouse of his ship doing, more or less, what you describe. Much later in the chapter we see his ship hijacked by aliens (it is SciFi). The tension took too long to develop. I wrote a short, new first chapter, to immediately precede that scene, introducing an underlying conflict between them my principal (alien) antagonists, and tipping readers to what was going on behind the scenes of the (now) second chapter. I think – hope – that giving readers anticipation of what’s to come helps whet their curiosity into my protagonists’ immediate responses.

  4. Ken Pelham
    | Reply

    Good advice! I doubt if there’s a story opening I haven’t rewritten at least a half-dozen times.

  5. Bonnie Bell
    | Reply

    I started my story with my great great grandmother getting ready to go to the court house to give a bunch of men her testimony regarding her deceased husband’s service in th War of 1812.
    My critique group said that was boring and I should start off with a bang telling my Great great grandfather’s experience fighting the British soldiers.

  6. Mary Jo McKeon
    | Reply

    If the inside muse gives forth a cliche don’t over think why. Just go with it.

  7. Ted Brown
    | Reply

    Bonnie, I think your critique group is off base. I can just see your grandmother preparing for her visit to the courthouse, her reflections on her deceased husband, her determination to uphold his name and to represent him in whatever is to ensue. I think that would draw me in, make me eager to learn how she does. Not so much possibility of depths of feelings by starting with bang-bang. Just my view, of course.

  8. Tricia Pimental
    | Reply

    This is super advice, Mary Ann. But in agreement with Bonnie and Ted, I was counseled to open my first memoir, Rabbit Trail: How a Former Playboy Bunny Found Her Way, with a scene with Hef putting his arm around my shoulder (never happened) and telling me something (he never said). It was totally inconsistent with the spirit of the book, so I went with my gut. It worked out very well.

  9. Mary Ann de Stefano
    | Reply

    About writers group advice (and even professional advice), I always say listen and consider, but make your own decisions. It’s your book. Often, writers groups and beta readers can be right about where a problem is, but not right about the solution. Ultimately, it’s all about the execution.

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