The recent SCBWI Wild Wild Midwest Conference was both fun and educational. I especially appreciated the advice on how to start a story.
Several speakers quoted the same author as saying that a book should begin by telling the entire story. That isn’t an exact quote, and I can’t even remember who it was from, but it got me thinking.
In my school days, I was taught that a written composition should tell what it was going to say, say it, and tell what it had said. I could understand how that worked for an essay, but fiction? That would be silly. Who wants to read a story if the author has already given the plot away?
I would. Consider the following examples:
(1) “Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that’s why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.”
This is the beginning of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.* And guess what the story is about? A girl who runs away and hides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
(2) “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
This is the first sentence in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin. And what is it about? Convincing rich single men that they want wives.
So why do these openings work? They give the essence of the story without revealing the details. We know that Claudia is going to run away from home and hide at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but we don’t know how long she can stay hidden or why she is running away in the first place. We read on because we want to find those answers.
I didn’t know about this principle when writing my first middle-grade novel, Desert Jewels, but I seem to have stumbled into it anyway. The first line is dialogue, and the words are “Dirty Jap!” The story is about discrimination against Japanese Americans in World War II, and I think those words capture it.
My current work in progress started differently. It adopted a lot of the conventional advice for crafting a great opening, such as starting with action that works with the story, introducing the characters, and establishing the setting. But it didn’t wow me. So when the SCBWI speakers told me to tell the entire story in the first sentence, I decided to try it.
Creating Esther is about an Ojibwe girl who goes to an Indian boarding school because she believes an education will help guard against the white man’s deceit. After the SCBWI conference, here is my new opening sentence: “School was the white man’s weapon and the Ojibwe’s defense.” Of course, I had to connect it to the story, so that line is what she is thinking as she walks to school. The original action kicks in immediately afterward.
The new opening isn’t perfect, and I may change it again. Still, it’s significantly better than what I had.
Obviously, there are many great novels that don’t begin by telling the story that will follow. But if your opening feels weak, give it a try.
It just may surprise you.
* Technically, it isn’t the beginning. The book starts with a cover letter from Mrs. Frankweiler to her lawyer. However, the above quote begins the actual story.