How to start and how not to

How to start


The Main Tale

Way before the curent UK fashion for starting every sentence with the word 'so', I put fingers to keyboard and started my first ever story thus:

So, that's how it started. Fourteen years old, and away from home on a school trip. It was odd, really, because I'd been going out with Carol for some time - since I was twelve, I guess. She was pretty, and had deep blue eyes, pale gold hair, and a face to die for. I had thought myself really lucky to have her as my special girlfriend.

It's quite a naive start because it refers to the start, but what it doesn't do is to introduce our hero all in a rush. We know a little about him, yes, but we know, or hope, that there is more to come. That there is more to come is good. We can learn about him over time.

That idea is something I try to be consistent about. Let me show you some beginnings:

  1. Wherever I looked, there was Harry. Every corridor I walked down, Harry was walking towards me. Every time I walked into the dayroom in the house, there was Harry. Every time I was in class, there was Harry.
  2. High on the volcanic headland, high above the small cove we'd scurried into to get out of the force six wind that was covering us with a fine golden grit, he stood. He was too close to the edge. Far too close. I was looking back to the beach and up the lava cliffs, and I was half scared for him. The wind threatened to push him off at any moment
  3. "Dublin"
  4. He wasn't there.
  5. I hate shopping.
  6. "Tom? You want to?"
  7. I like it here. Last year, not so much. Last year I was lonely, knew no-one, and, to be fair, was somewhere different. It wasn't that different, it was just round the corner, but it could have been on the moon. We'd been on holiday to Pwllheli that last couple of years.

Taken collectively, how many introduce the main character? Ok, one of them tells us that the person speaking hates shopping, but who is speaking? Another tells us that someone, the narrator and, because it is obviously written in the first person's voice, our hero, likes it 'here'. The thing is, do they make you want to read paragraph two?

All the opening has to do is to hook you enough to get you to read the next paragraph. Seriously, that is all it has to do. What else would it do?

A New Chapter

Yes, new chapters need good starts, too, especially while a serial is being released in parts. Today I saw this one:

The next morning was a Saturday. I did homework for an hour...

I abandoned the story at that point. It was a serial I think I'd been following, but the gap between chapters was so long I wasn't sure. It's now a serial I am not following.


Simply because it was not in the slightest degree interesting. I am not engaged, not drawn in. The author has assumed that I wish to read it and has chosen apathy when penning the chapter start.

This made me look at some of my own starts for new chapters:

  1. I was stuttering as I failed to answer Carol.
  2. I couldn't actually do anything. Several reasons. The most pressing was just that. Pressure.
  3. "Hilarious?" He sounded intrigued.
  4. One of the major problems Tom and I have with being teenagers is that it's almost impossible to control our destiny.
  5. My brain had been telling me it would never happen, could never happen. It'd been hoping since I was thirteen.

Don't worry, I have some poor ones, too. Oddly, though, these good ones were the first I found at random. Each of them has something that insists we read on. And that is all they have to do.

Want to see the poor ones?

Go find them for yourself!

William King

The opening paragraph is very important and has very many styles available to it. What it must do is grab the reader's attention, so they read on. Then the first page, first chapter, follows up on the opening and cements interest.

In my first ever opening paragraph I used a conversation, and the reader is immediately immersed in the action and one of the central characters is introduced.

"Can you ever be serious?" Matty looked at me across the little coffee table that sat in the middle of his room. (I'll Kiss You in the Rain)

That one small sentence I thought grabbed attention and intrigued, setting up the scene for the conversation, which you would want to listen to the rest of.

I think if you read opening lines you can categorise them into types. In my next book I opened with the main character and narrator explaining his situation and confiding in the reader why he had to leave home.

I needed to put some space between myself and living at home with my parents. There were two reasons, two secrets, the one all my friends shared and the other that no one knew except me, the one it was impossible to tell anyone. (The Year We Grew Up)

We might easily guess that one secret is that he is gay, but what is the other? That is the hook, the story has a mystery to be discovered, it is more complex because we know there are two threads that will unfold.

There are openings which say nothing more about the story to come than some vague description or statement.

I was about to disappear in the shadow of the building, my back was hard against the wall while I was staring at the washed out colours on the bill board opposite. The number of the long awaited truck or at least the hazy silhouette, "Land Fall 49," it was difficult to think, the infernal heat pressed down on me. (Rompecabezas)

This opening sets the scene in a way that, hopefully, conjures the environment. It is intended to make the reader feel "the infernal heat." The mystery is evoked by the narrative of the main character, but all we know is that he is waiting for a truck.

I used this type of opening again in another novel.

The neon light glowed in the darkness, reflecting washed out colours that reverberated off the sidewalk. The tall glass buildings he hugged gave no protection from the incessant rain that streaked in cords from an unseen sky. "Join us for a new dawn…" the smiling face, ten times larger than reality, announced from the red and blue electric billboard, so far up towards the invisible sky that it towered over the street. (NEON)

Someone stated that "washed out colours" do not reverberate, and it's a valid point, but the intention here again is to immerse the reader in the environment. I want the reader to feel the rain streaking from the sky, to feel drenched by the rain. We know nothing other than the description of a place, and it is this description that is designed to make you want to walk in this world and discover what is happening.

In a more recent novel the opening is a dramatic introduction to the main character. The intention is to put the reader smack bang in the middle of the action, and to make you want to know what's happened.

Samir couldn't tell if his eyes were open or closed. There was no pain, no sound, just darkness. A weight pressed down on him, something sharp was sticking into his leg near the top; he could feel it. He heard his heart beating. He couldn't move. (Refugee)

In another (incomplete) story written for a competition in the style of Tolkien, the first paragraph describes the location in Middle Earth (it can be found on a map), then extends from the known to the legend about a city, Assakia, and the reader is told they will discover it's history. Of course, this is an invitation to read on.

Beyond Mirkwood at the far reaches of the Celduin, where the great river empties into the Sea of Rhûn, lies a forest and a land unknown to man. Legend has it that a desert of endless sand stretches forever to a city talked about only by travellers, but seldom has a person visited such a place. The rumours are both dark and mysterious, to be believed or dismissed as pure invention. That city however, has a name, Assakia, and a history, but we will come to that in due time. (The End of Times)

This type of opening could be called the classic fairy tale introduction, it both sets the scene and tells the reader that they are embarking on an adventure.

I have only touched on types of openings, they can be short, shocking, clever, funny, introspective. Take a look at some famous openings: Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun. The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, Douglas Adams.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. 1984, George Orwell.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy.

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides.

That gives you some idea of what we are all aiming for. None of my openings are up there with those great authors, but it's where we strive to be, in one style or another.

How not to start


There are more ways of not starting than I can shake a stick at, and I've committed a few! A cardinal sin is to bore folk to death in the first paragraph.

This one is a prime example:

Each year we go on holiday to the same seaside hotel in South Wales, in a popular walled town in Pembrokeshire. Tenby. It's famous for its sandy beaches, safe swimming, caves in the cliffs. I think they are limestone cliffs, because the rocks get all slippery when they are wet, but I'm really not that sure. We stay in a small, family run hotel overlooking the sea, at the top of the cliffs, and stay there for two whole, blissful weeks. We've been going to the same place since I was eight, and this is the seventh year we've stayed here. We know the owners pretty well, and they treat their regulars well, so we've got one of the best rooms, but not the most expensive price. We're there now. It's August, and we are at the end of our stay there.

That's the only one I've let stand because I wasn't good enough when I wrote that opening, and it reminds me of that.

It doesn't make me want to read on. There's no hook, and we don't care about the hero. He's telling us about a load of stuff, not showing us about it. And it suggests that the rest of the tale will be boring too.

It would be easy to re-write, even without knowing the rest of the story. Try things like:

I'm quite a fan of the short opening. Or, at the most, three, perhaps four, lines. Words have to add value to the plot. Each word is precious.

The others, the really poor starts? I trashed them and started with something that has a hook. Unless, of course, you can find one and tell me about it!


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