Story Beginnings

First impressions are everything. This is true in day to day life. People decide very quickly what they think about us the first time they meet us. How we’re dressed, how we enter a room,  what we’re carrying, who we’re with all speak volumes about who we are before we even utter a word. Those first words are also important, how we speak, if we have an accent,  use slang, or speak proper English, tell more about us than what we’re actually saying.

The same holds true for writing. Blog posts, short stories, novels, non-fiction, we have a finite amount of time to grab a reader’s attention and make them want to continue reading.  So how do we make a good first impression with our writing?

As writer’s we’re told to start in the middle of it, to start with some action. We don’ t want to start with our characters (fictitious or real) sitting on a bus staring out window and watching the countryside go by. That’s boring. A few paragraphs of description and our readers lose interest. They don’t know what the story is about, they don’t know or care about the characters, and they’re not likely to stick around to find out.

Instead, we should start with some action. Our characters doing something, running, moving,  having a conversation (preferably a little heated), something other than sitting on their bottoms taking in the scenery. That’s exciting. That holds the attention.

This is my problem. I’ve figured out skipping ahead to the action, but I do it to such an extent that I neglect to orient my readers a little.  I wrote a short story for my writing class that started with the aftermath of two kids messing around play fighting and landing on their grandfather’s ashes.  I think that qualifies as interesting and in the middle of the action.

The feedback I got was it was confusing because my readers couldn’t picture the box, how big it was, what it was made of,  and didn’t understand quite how the characters wound up covered in Grandpa’s ashes. I started too far into the action.

Of course, I knew how they got there and all about the box. I just needed to clue the readers in a little. It took a couple sentences to fix.  Otherwise, my readers are disoriented and confused. Not a good first impression.

In addition to grabbing our readers attention with some action, we need to accomplish a couple other things with our beginnings fairly quickly. We need to give them an idea of where they are.  We need to let them know who the characters are and their relationship to one another. We don’t need give tons of information or description, that becomes boring and doesn’t move the story along.  But we do need to give them some details so it doesn’t seem our story is taking place in a vacuum.

The more I learn about writing, the more I realize there’s a lot to learn about writing well.

Do you have problems with beginnings? How do you make a good first impression with your writing?


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4 Responses to “Story Beginnings”

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  1. Kristin @ Peace, Love and Muesli
    Twitter: kristinglas
    says:

    Phooey! Action is where it’s at, throw me in there and get the story started. I don’t care how big the box of ashes is or what colour it is, I like the get to the story, right away.
    Description is overrated.

    Uhm, I should let you know that I have recently learned that I am a very fussy reader and only like books and stories that are written to my specifications. Perhaps I should just be quiet.

    • Jessica Anne says:

      See, that’s what I’m talking about, descriptions are for losers. :) All action, all the time.

      That would be an interesting idea for a writing job. Someone tells you what they want to read and then you write it, just for them.

  2. The Drama Mama
    Twitter: poopscoopinmama
    says:

    Hmmm. I’ve never given my “process” any thought. I think I tend to get the story going then bring in some backstory if its necessary. More often then not, I leave you hanging, but thats just a short story. Honestly, life doesn’t end until you die, and even then people question if thats it. Why should a story end just because?

    Oh this isn’t what you asked, but this is what you brought out. I honestly don’t know if I make a good impression or not. I think it depends on the genre I am writing. If it’s not their interest, can you still make a good impression?
    The Drama Mama´s last post ..Writing Workshop- Always &amp Forever

    • Jessica Anne says:

      I think I tend to do the same, write the story then go back and flesh it out a bit. But maybe I’m not doing such a good job at that.

      I think it’s so hard to know how our stories affect people or if they like them, hence the need for some real critique. I think if it’s not their genre, you’ve got a hard sell, although a really good writer I think can pull people into a new genre. However, what about the people who are reading within their genre? I’ve certainly picked up books in the store in the genres I usually like, read a page or two, and put it down not interested. I think that counts as a bad first impression.