Story openings = setting + point of view
There are many ways to open a story!
In general, though, you don’t want to start with the conflict of the story. Until the reader is invested in the story somewhat, they really won’t care about the actual conflict.
Start with setting and character:
- Give a setting that is heavily filtered (even distorted) through the character’s or narrator’s point of view.
- Have the character do, say, think, or talk about something very characteristic of themselves, with hints of setting.
The very first sentence should cover the most important elements of the story. Generally, this is the genre and subgenre, plus any other “rules” of the story you need to cover.
The first sentence should somehow show or tell what genre you’re writing in, as filtered through the character’s point of view.
Here are some famous examples:
- It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, romance.
- Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, drama.
- It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.—George Orwell, 1984, science fiction/dystopia.
- Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.—Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups, women’s fiction.
- I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.—Robert Graves, I, Claudius, satirical historical fiction.
Here are some recent bestselling examples:
- It was one of those raw, windy, dreary Monday afternoons in February when gloom settled over the land and seasonal depression was rampant. Court was not in session.—John Grisham, “Homecoming” from Sparring Partners, legal thriller.
- As I sit here with one foot on either side of the ledge, looking down from twelve stories above the streets of Boston, I can’t help but think about suicide.—Colleen Hoover, It Ends With Us, coming of age story.
- “I thought there’d be more sex.”—Susan Mallory, The Boardwalk Bookshop, found-family fiction with humor.
Some of these examples tell us about the rules of the story (Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, The Boardwalk Bookshop). Some of these examples tell us about character (Back When We Were Grownups, I, Claudius). And some of these examples tell us about the physical setting (1984, It Ends With Us, “Homecoming”). All three types give us a taste of the genre we’re getting into, regardless of the emphasis.
Being able to combine the most important genre elements of your story through a character’s point of view is tricky! The closer you can come to hitting all your elements in the first sentence or two, the more compelling your opening will be for the readers who want to read that genre.
Let’s go back to our sci-fi example. Here’s what we know:
- The reality is a future London, in the same “reality” as our own, just in the future.
- There’s a screen that says “31-3-2057 London” and a Vauxhall hovercar.
- The character’s name is Bert and he looks like Dick Van Dyke; he’s a bicycle delivery person in a world with hovercars.
- The character has gotten so annoyed about something an extended family member said on social media that he left a bag of dog poo at their font door.
Our options are to start with Bert or to start with the future London setting; in either case, we will need to show this is a sci-fi story.
Starting with a rule:
Some people fly in hovercars. Other people deliver packages for basically nothing on bicycles. So I guess you could say one thing about living in the future: it never really changes.
Starting with a physical setting:
The delivery countdown timer on the bike screen flashed ALMOST LATE in red, right above the date and time: 16:59:30 GMT (London) 31.3.2057.
Starting with a character is almost impossible in a sci-fi story (the setting itself is the most important element), but I’ll try:
Bert, I told myself as a hovercar overhead made my hair stand on end, stop fucking panicking. You’re the only bicycle delivery person your cousin knows in London. Of course he’s gonna message you about tracking down who left the bag of dogshit on his doorstep yesterday. That doesn’t mean he knows it was you.
- Use the point of view character or narrator’s “voice” when writing the opening.
- Make sure you hint at your genre somehow!
- Start with the rules or physical setting if it’s a story where the setting isn’t the modern-day real world.
- Start with the rules or character if the character goes through a personal transformation.
- Start with just the rules if nothing else is working.
If you can get everything in the same sentence all at once, great! But if you can’t, your opening will still be pretty good.
What hooks the reader in the opening of a story is the promise of getting what they want from the story, and that promise is the genre! So make sure the opening sentence or two of your stories give the reader important genre elements—it will keep them turning pages.
(Next time, talking about how to introduce conflict.)