What to do.
Write your own story beginning. Analyze the examples, and determine what you want to accomplish with your beginning. Always strive to engage the reader. Do you want to do that in narrative or in scene? Do you want to describe or create action that reveals? You’ll need to have your prose at a level where momentum, mystery, and heightened awareness are seamlessly embedded. Some authors like to provide the ending, of course not recognizable until the end, in the beginning. 300 word limit.
Some traditional rules for beginnings.
- Set the tone of the piece, establish voice, and establish a “contract” with the reader as to expect with narration: first person, third person singular, third person multiple (omniscient, to some), and the validity of the narrator.
- Establish who, what, when, where.
- Avoid narrative description in favor of in scene action. Engage the reader rather than tell the reader the past or use extensive narrative description. Clearly let the reader know what the story is about.
- Start characterization with first sentence. Use action, internalization,
- Usually, don’t start with dialogue in opening sentence; it may delay high priority information needed to engage the reader.
- Don’t try to tell the entire story.
- Avoid: back story, past perfect tense, passive constructions, treading water (get to the story).
Read the samples of various beginnings, some traditional, some contemporary, and see which you think are most effective and why. There is wide variance in effect and skill in the samples, and the reader responses to value will be highly individual. Therefore, use the why to guide you in your own work. Be careful. You will not create a great beginning by copying someone else. Great writing, including beginnings, comes from intellect, knowledge, and experience in life as well as writing and storytelling. Create your style, and don’t copy.
SAMPLE BEGINNINGS FOR STUDY
The Masque of the Red Death
Edgar Allen Poe
THE “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal — the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.
“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”
“What is his name?”
“Is he married or single?”
“Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
1801. I have just returned from a visit to my landlord–the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country! In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society. A perfect misanthropist’s heaven: and Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us. A capital fellow! He little imagined how my heart warmed towards him when I beheld his black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows, as I rode up, and when his fingers sheltered themselves, with a jealous resolution, still further in his waistcoat, as I announced my name.
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
The New Yorker
June 6, 2011
My stepfather wasn’t a big man, not much taller than my mother. He was lithe and light on his feet, handsome, with velvety dark brows, a sensual mouth, and jet-black hair in a crewcut as thick and soft as the pelt of an animal (not that I ever touched it, though sometimes, out of curiosity, I wanted to). His face was one of those whose features seem compacted, as if under pressure within a frame. He was energetic, intelligent, diligent, faithful—a stroke of luck for my mother, a lightening bolt of luck that had illuminated her grinding, narrow future and transformed it. They’d met at work, at the Board Mill, where the packets for Wills cigarettes were made; he was the manager of cost accounting. It was a real love, much more than she could have hoped for, past her first youth and with a half-grown daughter as part of the package.
The store in which the justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish – this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet:
“But what proof have you, Mr. Harris?”
“I told you. The hog got into my corn. I caught it up and sent it back to him. He had no fence that would hold it. I told him so, warned him. The next time I put the hog in my pen. When he came to get it I gave him enough wire to patch up his pen. The next time I put the hog up and kept it. I rode down to his house and saw the wire I gave him still rolled on to the spool in his yard. I told him he could have the hog when he paid me a dollar pound fee. That evening a nigger came with the dollar and got the hog. He was a strange nigger. He said, ‘He say to tell you wood and hay kin burn.’ I said, ‘What?’ ‘That whut he say to tell you,’ the nigger said. ‘Wood and hay kin burn.’ That night my barn burned. I got the stock out but I lost the barn.”
HEART OF DARKNESS
The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.
The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.
The Director of Companies was our captain and our host. We four affectionately watched his back as he stood in the bows looking to seaward. On the whole river there was nothing that looked half so nautical. He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified. It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.
THE twilight of evening. Big flakes of wet snow are whirling lazily about the street lamps, which have just been lighted, and lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses’ backs, shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the sledge-driver, is all white like a ghost. He sits on the box without stirring, bent as double as the living body can be bent. If a regular snowdrift fell on him it seems as though even then he would not think it necessary to shake it off. . . . His little mare is white and motionless too. Her stillness, the angularity of her lines, and the stick-like straightness of her legs make her look like a halfpenny gingerbread horse. She is probably lost in thought. Anyone who has been torn away from the plough, from the familiar gray landscapes, and cast into this slough, full of monstrous lights, of unceasing uproar and hurrying people, is bound to think.
The New Yorker
June 13 & 20, 2011
Above and Below
She’d been kept awake all night by the palm berries clattering on the roof, and when she woke too the sun blazing through the window she’d had enough. Goodbye to all that! She sang, moving the little she owned in the station wagon: her ex-boyfriend’s guitar, the camping equipment they’d bought the first year of grad school (their single night on the Suwannee, they were petrified by the bellows of bull gators), a crate of books. Goodbye to the hundreds of others she was leaving stacked against the wall: Worthless, the man had told her when she tries to sell them.
Goodbye to the glass mountain of debt she was slithering out from underneath. Goodbye to the hunter-orange eviction notice. Goodbye to longing. She would be empty now, having chosen to lose.⇑click here to hide text
300 word limit