Reading the beginning of a novel or short story is like entering a theatre or cinema, or going to see an opera or exhibition. You’re aware of entering a different kind of reality – you’re crossing the threshold into a fictional narrative. As a writer, your job is to make your reader wish to stay there.
The most fundamental interpretation of this is simply that the reader should find the beginning believable as a piece of fiction.
Of course, this alternative narrative can run very close to our sense of the real world, mirroring it in many ways. This closeness is what gives fiction its power to unsettle and enthral – the uncanny resemblance it can bear to the real, everyday world, even when the reader is perfectly aware that it is just an arrangement of words.
Often the best beginnings are the ones that seem to disappear, letting the reader pass them by and get straight into the body of the story, as though they have just ‘tuned into’ that particular narrative, or just opened a door into that room or scene.
...But the reader has been given a fairly concrete sense of character, time, place and narrative point of view. With this concrete foundation, the stories could go almost anywhere.
Ask yourself a series of concrete questions before you begin to write:
These questions will deliver you a clear sense of the point at which your narrative begins. They should also suggest a sense of the tone and mood you might wish to achieve.
Another useful question to ask in considering your beginning (and again both during the preliminary stages of focusing your story) is simply: does this add to my story? The writing might be perfectly interesting, in itself, but is it good for the story in hand? Is it the beginning you wanted? You might find that it is better to cut your favourite opening lines or paragraph or pages, and let your story begin at a quite different, much later place.
For example, a fast-paced story might be slowed down by beginning with a long section of interior monologue or description. This might be a good thing (adding depth and interest), or it might simply divert and clog the flow of a story that works better at a swift, highly directed pace.Begin at the end
One noon, in the blaze of a cloudless Carolina summer, what was left of eight dead boys lay strewn about the landscape, among the poison ivy and the pine needles and loblolly saplings.
(Styron, 2001 )
This is the opening sentence of William Styron’s novella, The Long March. The main dramatic event of the story has already taken place. The story begins at the end.
The rest of the story, therefore, is a matter of unravelling the denouementthat has already been supplied. This unravelling becomes the real story itself, the plot and distinctive character of the piece of fiction. Perhaps nothing so dramatic as the opening scene will happen again throughout the story.
This kind of beginning suggests that everything of most importance to the story lies ahead. Naturally, causes or explanations for what happens next might lie far back in the past – and indeed, well before the story itself takes place. But the implication here is that the story is working towards something – an event, transformation or recognition – that lies further on, and that may not be revealed until the last page.
This kind of approach will probably rely less on the explosive dramatic opening of a story that begins at the end. It may rely more on the intrigue and suspense mentioned about plot in Block 3; and also on establishing a concrete fictional world and narrative point of view – as described at the start of this block.The journey model
A classic model for a story that begins at the beginning might be a story that involves a journey – the very idea of a journey being closely aligned to the idea of a story: starting in one place, ending up in another, or returning home after seeing and experiencing something that is not home.
A different kind of beginning at the beginning opens with an apparently inconsequential event, without drama, which is nonetheless the trigger (without the character being entirely aware of it) for the novel’s entire story, which then flows onwards from this quiet point:
To begin a story in the middle, in medias res, can suggest a sense of realism – as though a narrative of events has simply been caught in mid-flow.
For example, you might begin in mid-conversation, as happens in Dorothy Parker’s short story, ‘New York to Detroit’ (Parker, 1996 ) – where a poor phone connection is the basis of a variety of misunderstandings and deceits. With no scene-setting at all, this story simply begins:
‘All ready with Detroit,’ said the telephone operator.
‘Hello,’ said the girl in New York.
‘Hello?’ said the young man in Detroit.
‘Oh, Jack!’ she said. ‘Oh darling, it’s so wonderful to hear you. You don’t know how much I – ‘
‘Hello?’ he said.
‘Ah, can’t you hear me?’ she said. ‘Why, I can hear you as if you were right beside me.’
Look back at Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (item 14 in the Anthology). Here, the story appears without any sense of its having a frame, and simply picks up in mid-flow of Clarissa Dalloway’s consciousness, on the day of one of many parties, of which she is the hostess.
The beginning gives the appearance of simply tuning in to a consciousness, and a flow of events, that are already in full swing, carrying on as though they are occurring entirely independently of any fiction, or structured story. This is of course a sleight of hand: the novel is very carefully structured and balanced.Begin after the beginning
When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annexe. She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like.
(John Fowles, The Collector, 1998 )
Here the narrator makes it clear that the story has already begun, and this is part of its menace. The narrator already has his eye on the girl; the tone is instantly and powerfully voyeuristic, and yet at the same time devoid of drama or any decisive event. The drama is all in the narrator’s mind, as he projects his sinister fantasies onto a stranger. The effect on the reader is deliberately to put them into the dual role of fascinated observer and fearful potential victim.
In this way, beginning – if not quite in the middle, but after the narrative of events has already taken hold – is a vital part of the story. The reader has entered into and is therefore uncomfortably complicit in the narrator’s story, which is also his fantasy world, simply by reading the first line.
Of course, beginning after the beginning does not have to engender menace, but can simply work, as with beginning in medias res, as a way of drawing the reader straight into a narrative that has already started without them:
By that time she had long become familiar with the play of light on the tiny whisky bottles frosted by the waves, the fantastical chunks of multi-coloured glass, reshaped by salt and time.
This model is where a story begins by being framed from the outside. There are various ways that this might occur.Establishing the setting
The environment might frame the story with a beginning that sets the scene – perhaps a substantial and detailed description of the location, or an overview of the period in which the story is set – in advance of any story actually being mentioned. From such a beginning, any number of stories might follow. It may not be a disadvantage to delay the story emerging; this framing device can have the effect of creating a full and concrete environment, a believable and visible setting in which the story will take place:
A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.
(Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native, 1985 )
In the night, way into the middle of the night, when the night isn’t divided like a sweet drink into little sips, when there is no just before midnight, midnight, or just after midnight, when the night is round in some places, flat in some places, and in some places like a deep hole, blue at the edge, black inside, the night-soil men come.
(Jamaica Kincaid, ‘In the night’, 1997)The eyewitness account
Another model for a story beginning on the outside is where the story is framed by a second narrative whose main function is to introduce the story.
Why choose this method? It might give the story an air of authenticity, the suggestion that it is an eyewitness account, told in the words of someone who was there (as opposed to a writer, sitting at a desk).
It might also set the author at a distance from their subject, perhaps if the story itself is something so lurid or shocking that the author pretends that they are not directly responsible for it.Begin on the inside
A story that begins on the inside might, at the very start, draw attention to its fictionality (a voice ‘speaking from inside the story’). It may do this by self-reference, drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that, right now, you are reading this story. Or by giving the impression that the story is not containable within the framework of its own making. Perhaps factual interjections keep occurring, or maybe the author intrudes to tell you about something else, for example, comparing the weather in real life to that in the story itself, and so on.
This model suggests that the piece of fiction is in many ways an unreliable machine, something that cannot contain itself, its author, and the world around it – whose odd habits and inconsistencies the writer feels obliged to explain from the inside out.Questions and considerations
Just as with thinking about your plot, it is similarly important to interrogate your beginning