How To Begin a Story by Lazarus Barnhill

Novels, novellas and short stories are very distinct literary forms. O. Henry’s short story The Gift of the Magi is hugely different in its construction from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. One would be tempted to say that, as different types of literature, they have virtually nothing in common.

The longest epic and the shortest tale, however, can have two enormously important things in common: they can engage the reader from the beginning and they can leave the reader satisfied but wanting more at the end. In this brief essay I’d like to share my ideas about what makes workable beginnings and endings. I think these ideas are universal in that they apply to creative fiction regardless of its genre, setting or length.

A key idea expressed to me repeatedly by the folks at Second Wind is that my story should grab and hold the attention of the reader from the very first line. As one of the editors expressed it to me, the first line should seduce the reader deeply into the narrative. I’ve been told that a good example of this is the first line of my novel Lacey Took a Holiday:

She woke up realizing she had been sleeping in a bed smaller and softer than the one in which she made her living, and that she was wearing the sort of flannel nightgown she hadn’t worn since she was a little girl.

What’s good about this sentence? It begins a story with no build up (back story). Another way this is described is in media res (“in the middle of things”). Speaking for myself, I find that introductions, forwards, preludes, prologues or whatever you want to call them tend to slow down the process of a story. True, there are a lot of great novels with prologues (Brad Stratton’s White Lies is one; so is Nicole Bennett’s Ghost Mountain. These two novels, however, each use their prologue to describe a crime and they do so with no back story whatever. In this they are exceptions that prove the rule).

In the text above, the reader immediately knows something about the character being described, the setting and even a little of the history of the character. An author should be able to weave back story into the narrative as it moves along. By the bottom of the first page, the reader knows a lot more about the woman being described, but not because the author has blatantly explained it. I have found that readers will be quite attentive and sleuth out the things they want to know about your characters, which will further draw them into the story.

This leads to the concept I call “introductory mystery”: the beginning paragraphs of a story, regardless of its length, deposit curiosity in the mind of the reader so that she/he will be drawn along into the narrative at least long enough to discover why a character said something or reacted in a certain manner. One example of this appears in the opening pages of Come Home to Me, Child, the crime/mystery novel I co-authored with Sally Jones. Within half a page the main character, Elaine, is interrupted and overwhelmed by her new neighbor, Police Chief Larry Daughtry. As the narrative continues after Daughtry abruptly walks away, Elaine asks Tim Starling, her contractor, to explain this intrusive man with whom he has long been acquainted:

“What about the chief?”

“He went into the Marines. Became a military policeman or shore patrol—whatever they call ‘em. Did three or four hitches and came back to work in law enforcement around here. He started as a Cochran County deputy and, about five years ago when the chief’s spot came open in Veil, he was the natural choice. I guess.”

“He seemed happier to see you than you were to see him.”

Starling chuckled. “I always thought Larry was a kind of a thug. He bullied me. Not that he was the only one.” He began to stretch his tape measure along the yard. “It’s the divine right of football players to torment band guys.”

Although the contractor’s explanation satisfies the introductory mystery of what sort of person has just barged into Elaine’s life, the story proceeds to plant more elements to hook the reader’s curiosity: why does the officer know so very much about her family; why is he so interested in her recent medical problems; and why is the police chief so interested in Elaine’s plan to move her gazebo twenty feet across the yard? These seeds of mystery blossom through the course of the narrative in ways intended to gratify the reader’s curiosity, but also to draw him/her ever deeper into the story.

As the police chief in his oppressive manner reveals to Elaine just how much he knows about her and her family, the reader is also learning the back story of what brought the main character to this place at this time and what is happening in her life. If, as an author, you can keep the pacing and dialogue smooth and natural—allow subject matter to emerge as it would in the flow of normal conversation—the narrative will give ample opportunity to simultaneously reveal the back story of the characters even as you develop them and their relationships.

So a good beginning 1) seduces the reader further into the story, 2) begins with narrative at the expense of back story, 3) plants elements of mystery in the reader’s mind—some to be quickly revealed even as seeds of greater mystery are planted, and 4) reveals back story through the narrative process so as to introduce the reader to the characters without impeding the process of the story itself.

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This article is anthoNovel Writing Tips and Techniqueslogized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

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Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday, The Medicine People, and Come Home to Me, Child (with Sally Jones).

1 Comment

Filed under Excerpts, Lazarus Barnhill, writing

One response to “How To Begin a Story by Lazarus Barnhill

  1. You are a wonderful storyteller, Lazarus.

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