Recently over at the Arlington Writers Group, we did a workshop session on “beginnings.” We each brought along the beginning to some novel or story that had been published (not our own) and then we read the first few paragraphs and discussed why the beginning worked or failed to work. It was an interesting exercise, but what was missing from it were all of the failed beginnings that never made it into print.
In this discussion of beginnings, I am sticking to what I know: short stories. It is possible that there are similarities between how short stories start and how novels start, but I am not a good judge of that since I don’t write the latter. Of course, this is based on my own experience, writing and selling science fiction short stories. With respect to beginnings, I think there are just a couple of things to keep in mind:
First, we always hear about the strong opening to a short story. You need to capture the reader’s attention quickly in order to keep them reading. This often leads to fantastic opening lines that simply can’t be sustained for the rest of the story. Before I ever sold a story, I was pretty good about coming up with opening lines, but I found it difficult to carry out what I started through the rest of the story. As I mentioned in the previous post, I’d written a story, the beginning of which was praised by Algis Budrys when I submitted it to him–but, as he said, the ending flagged. I just couldn’t sustain what I’d done.
I learned an important lesson (for me) in trying to address this particular issue: know the ending. In the story I submitted to Budrys, the idea came from a simple vision: what if, an editor was walking down the street and encountered a famous writer–who had been dead for many years–but was now alive and well and trying to get said editor’s attention? My problem was I had no idea where the story was going after that. It seemed to me that what makes a great beginning work is knowing what the ending is going to be so that you have something to work toward. For me, having something to work toward is all-important. It helps with all aspects of the story, especially the pacing, and it ensures that I don’t get lost along the way. This isn’t to say that the ending can’t change. But for me, anyway, a beginning is only as good as the ending because they are the two pins on the map that let me know where I am starting out and where I am ending up.
Another lesson I’ve learned about beginnings is not to overdo them. I thought I had a wonderful opening line for my first published story, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer“. The story opened with:
When I kissed the learned astronomer, I never expected I would fall in love, discover intelligent aliens in the universe, and end up in jail.
One reviewer, however, pointed out that the opening line gave away the entire story. As a reader, you know from that first line that all 3 of those things happen to the narrator. You just don’t know how. I thought what made the story interesting is how those things happened, and how they were related. I don’t completely agree with the reviewer on their assessment. I think there is entertainment in seeing how these things came to be. But I also see value in what the reviewer had to say. If your opening gives away the story, what point is there for a reader to finish it?
I recently learned one other valuable lesson about good beginnings that has had a valuable impact on my recent story. I had gotten it into my head that the pace you set at the beginning had to be maintained throughout the story–that you had to have a kind of breakneck carnival ride that never slowed down, even for an instant. My current work in progress (a novelette space opera) opens with a pretty dramatic scene, and I felt like I had to keep up that pace throughout the story. However, one of my writing group mates pointed out something very obvious, yet very true. He said that the opening was so good that there was no need for me to rush through the next scene or scenes. The opening was strong enough that the pace could slow down for a scene to two before returning to what happened in the opening. The reader wouldn’t lose interest because the opening was so strong, and I could spend time on the little details and the background a bit more.
This was a revelation to me. I had been trying to figure out how to fit in these little details and background without losing the pacing I’d set at the beginning. After the critique, I realized it was okay to slow down; that I didn’t have to sprint my way through a story–at least this story–and that it would still work, still hold a reader’s interest.
Incidentally, what I use for the beginning of the story in the first draft isn’t what always remains there for the final draft. On my most recent story, “Take One for the Road” (Analog, June 2011), I must have written three or four different open scenes before I landed on the scene that ended up in the story. Sometimes, this is because I find that I am starting a story in the wrong place (usually too early). Other times it is because I discover that I’m using the wrong voice or point of view. I usually find that “right” beginning pretty quickly and once I do, the story virtually writes (or rewrites) itself.
So what works for you with respect to beginnings? How do you like to start your stories? What type of story openings do you like to read? Have you found any tips or tricks that work well for you?
“In the story I submitted to Budrys, the idea came from a simple vision: what if, an editor was walking down the street and encountered a famous writer–who had been dead for many years–but was now alive and well and trying to get said editor’s attention? My problem was I had no idea where the story was going after that.”
Sounds like a possible variation to A. E. van Vogt’s short story, “The Ghost”, which was published in the August 1942 UNKNOWN WORLDS. Van Vogt wrote (in 1969), “…in THE GHOST I utilized the serial time theories of an almost forgotten English philosopher.”
Isaac Wilcott has a summary of THE GHOST at
Finally, David S. Wright mentions J. W. Dunne in “Time Enough for Everything: A Look at Time Travel in Science Fiction – Part Two: Multiplex Time Travel”
I’m still struggling with the beginning thing. I think that not only does the beginning have to work for the story, it also has to work for the person who’s writing it. I realized that a piece I’m working on needs a certain beginning… one that I know I would be terrible at writing… but I feel it’s where the story needs to go. Sometimes, I think the tough thing is that there are just too many ways to start a story, and there is no right one way.
Jess, you should read Robert Coover’s Spanking the Maid. The story is essentially all beginnings. It just restarts over and over again.