Have you ever picked up a story, read the first paragraph, then put it down again? Of course you have. We all have. The first few lines of any story are very important because as readers we use them to decide whether or not to read on. We want to know if the story is about something we’re interested in or if it is going to be boring and a waste of our time.
Writing a story is like creating a new unexplored universe. We need to make sure our beginning catches the readers’ attention and makes them want to read more. We need to begin our work with a BIG BANG!
All the best stories grab readers immediately and drag them – slam! bang!—right into the heart of the story. You will sometimes hear teachers or other writers call this
“a hook.” A hook at the beginning of your story shows that your story is interesting and makes sure your readers keep on reading. One way to do this is to begin with action.
For example, look at the difference between the following two openings. The first one is a simple description, and the second one is written as an action.
Descriptive beginning: Tommy likes going to the zoo with his sister.
Active beginning: When the lion first roared, Tommy jumped backwards so fast that he slammed into his sister and dropped his ice cream cone all over her shoes.
While there is nothing wrong with the descriptive beginning, it isn’t very exciting. Because we like zoos ourselves, we might read on. Or, we might just say “Who Cares?” and put down the book. There’s nothing very interesting or puzzling about the sentence, so we may indeed decide to go play on our Wii or ride bikes instead.
Most people think the second active beginning is more interesting and they want to read more. Unlike the first beginning, the active beginning suggests some questions: Where is this lion? Is Tommy in danger? Will his sister be mad at him? Beginnings of stories should tease readers like this one does. While we don’t want to give away everything we’re writing about, we do want our readers to be curious – to wonder what is going on and to want to read more.
One of the ways to write strong, beginnings is to think about using The Three P’s (person, place, and problem). If your opening paragraph has a person, he or she is usually in a place. But if you also talk about a problem, you make the opening more interesting. Your reader will want to find out what happens next.
Another way you can make the beginning of your stories more interesting is to start close to the end. If your story is about Marshall being trapped in a cave when one of its walls collapses, start your story close to that event. We do not need to know that Marshall woke up that morning at 8:00 a.m., brushed his teeth, showered, then sat down at the breakfast table and ate a bowl of cereal. Instead of boring your reader with everything that happened during Marshall’s day, try starting the story closer to the disaster itself. Put us right in the middle of the action. Try writing a first line something like this:
When the rocks finally stopped falling, Marshall breathed again, then with a quiet panic, he knelt down and began sifting through stones and dust to find the dropped flashlight.
Starting a story can be difficult, and sometimes it can take a bit of time to get warmed up. We can have false starts and write about things that really aren’t that important. But since the beginning of the story should be important, you may find that it is easier to write your whole story first, then go back and remove unnecessary parts, and write your first line last since you will then know how it fits with the rest of your story.
Try writing a short story and send it to us for the next issue of Magic Dragon. Just remember, begin it with a BIG BANG!