Terrible Writing Advice – Chapter 14: BEGINNING A STORY

Starting a story is easy! Just drown the reader in so much info dumping and exposition that they can’t possibly escape! Once the reader is stuck, then trap them in a web of flashbacks, in medias res, and prologues. They will never escape then and will be forced to read the rest of your story. Don’t forget to use a mirror to describe how the main character looks!

My Honest Thoughts on Beginning a Story

I remember a few years ago when I tried to read Sword of Shannara. At about chapter two or three, the mentor sits the protagonist down and has a long talk about the history of the world. It was a classic info dump. My reaction at the time was kind of funny. “You can’t do that!” I yelled at the audio-book. “That’s against the rules! I am pretty sure you are not allowed to do that.”

Writing is a part of language and language is constantly evolving and changing. Sword of Shannara was written at a time when using an information dump was not considered ineffective writing. Then someone found a way to integrate background information naturally into the story without the need for information dumping and ruined it for everybody!

Modern audiences have also changed. Time is more precious than ever and attention spans are on the wane. Modern writers must adapt to meet those needs. This has led me to an interesting observation;

Readers will put down a book because it’s boring long before they put it down because it’s confusing.

If you have to pick one over the other, throwing the reader into the action is a safer gamble than starting slow and steady. Otherwise, I can mention a few story openings that I think are interesting.

Game of Thrones
Opening line: “We should go back”
That opening line tells us everything we need to know about this story. We should go back. It’s a warning to the reader that this is going to be a rough ride. The tone from the opening chapter is like a ghost story and frames the coming conflict perfectly. It always lets the reader know that all the bickering and petty infighting is nothing more than a distraction from the real threat. We know that there is a long winter and it makes the audience feel special for being one of the few who realizes the greater threat. It also establishes that the characters are more realistic and less archetypes for the story. They also all die letting us know that anyone can perish in this story.

Enders Game
Opening line: I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.
Many stories like to tell us the main character is special. Ender’s Game just does this up front. It also quickly establishes the protagonist’s character traits before isolating him. The story then moves quickly to show us Ender’s main conflict; the struggle to balance his ruthless side and benevolent side as showcased through his siblings.

The Hobbit
Opening Lines: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
The Hobbit is basically a fairy tale story and so it starts like one. I love how it establishes a few critical pieces of information. 1: There is a creature called a hobbit. 2: Hobbits live underground. 3: Hobbit homes are classy and built for comfort. These first few opening lines instantly spark the reader’s imagination. The first few chapters in the Hobbit are some of my favorite chapters in all of fiction. Despite being basically exposition, the exposition is delivered in such an endearing and often funny way that we get everything we need to know before Bilbo goes off on his adventure.

Opening Line: The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel
This is one of the greatest opening lines in all of modern fiction. What an engaging mental image. Too bad I don’t think it will hold up well for much longer as the younger generation will likely not know what a static television screen looks like in the near future.

Opening Line: It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
This opening line tells us that something is wrong with the world. As with many good opening lines, these are often just simple openings like about the weather, but twisted in a new way. In this case, the weather is wrong and the time is wrong.