Monday, March 22, 2010

How to Start Your Story

Last Monday, I took a Grub Street class called All The Right (Opening) Moves:
We all hear that the opening moves of a story or novel must grab the reader and capture her imagination. But how exactly does that happen? In this seminar, we will look closely at the first two pages of a range of short stories and discuss the strategies they use to immediately activate character and plot. You'll then have the chance to try these strategies out with the opening of one of your fiction projects.
According to instructor Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, there are SIX ways to start a piece of fiction:
  1. The Plunge
  2. The Wind-Up
  3. Aerial View
  4. The Rumination
  5. The Hook
  6. The Experiment
Jasmine explained some of these in movie terms, which I have to admit helped me really visualize and understand the options, so I'm going to pass that along to you.

The Plunge is the close-up view: boom, you're in the middle of the action, in the car with the hero, running down the street with the heroine.

The Wind-Up is the montage: the main event isn't happening yet, but we're getting critical and select pieces of information so that when the main event does happen, we'll be ready for the ride.

The Aerial View is, well, the aerial view. The panorama of the story's environment before we swoop down to street level.

The Rumination is the voice-over, giving you the main character's actual thoughts and ponderings.

The Hook is the incredibly high-voltage, dramatic, intense scene (followed by a screen that says "four hours earlier..." at which point the story backs up and begins at the beginning).

And The Experiment is just a way of saying that, if you're going to do something really weird and novel with your fiction, you should signal that to the reader up front. Like Memento starting out with footage of a Polaroid photo developing and being shaken in reverse: the whole movie is comprised of scenes patched together in reverse-chronological order, which could leave a viewer feeling confused, tricked, or blindsided if not handled properly. So, there's a funky device used right up front, letting the viewer know s/he should expect something extraordinary.

Note that these are styles you can use to start your story, they're not about content. It's easy to picture "the plunge" as starting at the moment of conflict but this need not be the case. You can zoom in close to the narrator before or after the moment of crisis as well. This is only about the method in which information is delivered.

And, of course, there are lots of ways to combine these elements. I think my first novel starts with a kind of plunge-rumination: you're right there, getting my main character's thoughts at the precise moment she realizes that she has a real problem on her hands. (But it's not an extended rumination, like, say, the first page of Lolita; we quickly move on from her thoughts, but stay close alongside her.)

WHICH STYLE DO YOU WRITE? Have you ever tried other methods for the same piece? I tried out the wind-up, the aerial, and the experiment for my in-class exercises, and I think my current short story is really going to benefit from "the experiment" method in particular.

Other students read variations of their openings out loud, and in some cases seemed clear which style worked better (and often the runner-up method seemed like it would work quite well later on in the piece, so it certainly wasn't wasted effort), but in other cases our opinions were mixed. But I think it's easy to forget that we have choices. Try out one you've never done before. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Oh, and just for fun, check out the 100 Best First Lines of Novels as chosen by the editors of American Book Review. I gotta say, #4 does nothing for me, but I think I'm in agreement with all the rest...


  1. Mine started with a Rumination, but now it has more of a Plunge. The Rumination was after the event, but I decided I needed to go back and tell the event, which is action-y so Plunge-ish.

  2. I despise the Hook and the Aerial. They just don't work for me. It's really hard not to slam them when I'm doing critique. I'm not a big fan of the experiment either, but I'm willing to give it a little more BotD. I don't mind the Plunge or the Rumination as much.

    But mostly, I like to start close in on the characters, and do a short work-up to a tense scene. Whether that's physical or emotional tension depends on the mood I'm going for.

  3. Many many of the ones on that linked list are ruminations. Interesting.

    Let's see...the WIP I'm currently focusing on starts with a Plunge-Rumination as well. The main character is in the middle of a conversation, but she does some thinkin' on it as well.

  4. Judy Blume says "start on the day that something different happens," so that's usually what I try to do. I would say it's more of a "plunge" technique. Sometimes I combine that with some kind of rumination.

  5. My WIP starts with a plunge into a hook I would say. The story begins with the MC finding a dead body and then we find out why and what happens next.

    It's been many years since I read One Hundred Years... and all I remember is the lady surrounded by butterflies. I kind of like that opening with the guy in his last moments before death thinking of some weird thought from childhood--and he's gonna be executed by the firing squad for gosh sakes!

    Good post, Carrie. I like those descriptive terms for openings.


  6. You know, I think I'm a fan of a combo Rumination-Plunge. The Plunge w/o the Rumination doesn't grab my sympathy, and the rumination without the plunge tends to bore me.

    Whoever made that list was clearly a fan of old white men... And what's with all the James Joyce? (He does nothing for me.) But many of the lines I agree with, and I realize how woefully unread I am in the more modern classics.

  7. I think mine is a plunge, though there isn't exactly a high speed car chase. I'm one of those terrible people who opened with dialogue, so lets hope that works out for my poor WIP...

    I feel each start works well depending on the genre and the style of writing you have.

    @Jess sadly, when much of history is dominated by white men, they'll take the lion's share.

  8. I love the differences here!

    Lauren Morrill, the beauty is that you can use ANY of these styles and still be starting on "the day something different happened." It's really easy to think of the plunge as getting into the heart of the story but it's really just about perspective. Starting with dialogue, as per Susana Mai, is an example of the plunge style, but you could (in theory) start with dialogue weeks before the big day, or weeks after. Or you could do a huge sweeping description of setting (aerial) on the big day.

    Atsiko, I don't like the hook if it's done purely for shock value. If the novel's plot really DOES start with a dead body, that's one thing. But when there's a big shocking moment that ends up not having emotional resonance in the context of the whole story, then that's just a cheap stunt. Aerial view is getting less popular in modern writing, I think.

    And, I think the rumination is really easy to screw up if you don't have a sufficiently compelling narrator.

  9. That is so interesting. I've never even thought about it, but I think I've begun with a plunge scene in every single one of my stories. I guess I just like a little action.

  10. Interesting.
    Right now, I'm using a Wind-up beginning, and I've used those before. But I know I'm going to be using a hook in the not too distant future.

  11. Super awesome Carrie. I think I'm a wind up person, and though I've tried other approaches, they just don't work. But, beginnings are my worst scenes to write. If only the Agent started reading about 4 chapters in, when I'm much more comfortable with the story.

    I enjoyed the post. Very timely for me.


  12. I agree, Carrie.

    That's why I prefer stories that mix it up a bit.