The opening of a story is an important opportunity to grab a reader’s interest and raise an unanswered question (or several) which they will keep reading to find the answer(s) to.
In this article, I will discuss some examples of story openings from the upcoming AusLit Australian Literature Anthology) and discuss several ideas in relation to these openings:
A FIRST MEETING BETWEEN CHARACTERS
One approach to a story opening is to use a first meeting between specific characters. First of all, a narrator’s focus on a first meeting between characters can imply that there is something significant about that relationship which a readercan look forward to. It also allows a writer to reveal details about the characters to a reader as the characters encounter these details about one another. This is one way to reveal character by showing it as an integrated part of the story, rather than a writer relying on telling backstory through a narrator adressing the reader outside the action of the story.
Fleur McDonald – Gone
I can still remember when they walked in.
Their haggard look told of sorrow beyond what any soul should bear; deep lines etched on their faces, their eyes red-rimmed.
Jo Hart – Angel Blood
“How may I help you?” I ask, a bright smile plastered across my face. It’s part of my job description to look perky. Well, not literally part of my job description, but when you work in retail it’s kind of expected.
Sonali Rajanayagam – A Brilliant Man
When he was a young man, my father would travel 60 miles for a dance. Premathan Vikramathi rolled into my mother’s village in the late afternoon like the cool breeze that blew in from sea, unsettling the red dust that had hung heavy in the day.
Fleur McDonald has introduced a first meeting of characters to create mystery. When the first-person narrator opens with “I can still remember when they walked in.” a reader can immediately ask themself why was it such a memorable occasion when they walked in. Who are they? Who is the narrator?
In the second sentence, Fleur has the narrator describe his (it is not clear in the first two sentences that the narrator character is a man, but he is) first impression of the characters who walked in: “Their haggard look told of sorrow beyond what any soul should bear; deep lines etched on their faces, their eyes red-rimmed.” This second line can raises questions such as: Why do the characters look ‘haggard’ with ‘lines etched into their faced’ and ‘red-rimmed eyes’? Why did they walk into where the narrator character was? Why does the narrator, with the benefit of hindsight, judge their appearance to ‘tell of sorrow beyond what any soul should bear?
Similarly, the story openings by Jo Hart and Sonali Rajanayagam can encourage questions which feed into a reader’s interest in the story as it progresses.
Jo Hart has introduced a first meeting of characters to create romantic interest (which later turns into more of a mystery/dilemma with life and death stakes).
Sonali has also introduced a first meeting of characters to create romantic interest (which goes on to serve as a son’s contemplation of his father’s past which informs the way the son thinks about his father in the present)
A CHARACTER CONFRONTING A PROBLEM
Another way to start a story effectively is to introduce a character with a problem they must act on if they don’t want it to get worse.
Kerry Brown – Five Degrees From Happiness
“Get away from my jewels or I’ll blow your bloody head off!” the woman screamed in a strong Russian accent. She looked up with blood shot eyes and a toothless snarl. A familiarity lingered between us as I froze and looked at her, open mouthed and wide-eyed.
Sam Stephens – Dead of the Night
David Wentworth sat at his desk, head in his hands. It had become a daily ritual; one which he seemed to perform far better than actual work.
He stared at the blank computer screen, begging words to appear. None did.
Michael Pryor – Sons of Esau
When the phone call came in the middle of the night, the first thing that Roy Paxman did was reach for Marie to reassure her. He’d done it every time the phone rang like that for thirtyfour years now, even though she hadn’t been there for the last sixteen.
Rebecca James – The Birthday
He wakes early on the morning of his tenth birthday. So early that it’s still dark outside. The house is quiet but he gets out of bed and hurries to the kitchen, where the fire glows warm and the lights are bright and he can hear the reassuring tick tick tick of the big kitchen clock.
Character can be revealed through action, particularly action in situations which put their personality to the test. You can have a narrator describe how your character would act in particular circumstances but showing how they actually act in those circumstances can be far more telling. The following openings each introduce a character with a problem in need of action to avoid it becoming worse. How the character chooses to act can encourages readers to make judgments about their character.
In each of the above examples, a character is introduced with a problem which will get worse if they don’t act. The above examples range from an adult facing a threat of physical violence to a child facing the need to fill in time after waking early on his birthday morning. A reader’s interest in how they will act can be a big factor in keeping them reading and enjoying the story.
ATTENTION-GRABBING FIRST LINE
JJ Cooper – Vengeance
Chase Johns drew the razor across his twelve-year-old daughter’s throat. A precise cut. It needed to be.
The passport-sized photo had aged and tattered at the edges. He finished trimming and placed it back on the dash of his van. His daughter’s angelic portrait never lost the ability to induce a myriad of emotions: vengeance knew no bounds for a father of a daughter lost.
An attention-grabbing first line can be something shocking or puzzling.
JJ Cooper has used a first sentence which would seem shocking to many readers: “Chase Johns drew the razor across his twelve-year-old daughter’s throat.”
Then he adds an element of mystery to it: “A precise cut. It needed to be.” Why did the cut need to be precise? Is the ‘need for precision’ a psychotic delusion of the character, or part of a psychological justification for what he was doing? Was it part of a plan to murder his daughter in a way he could set someone else up for the crime?
However, the next sentence indicates that the character was just cutting a photo of his daughter. Now the questions become: Why was he cutting a pphoto of his daughter with a razor, and why did the cut need to be precise?
The few sentences which follow reveal more: the character’s daughter had been ‘lost’ (murdered) describes cutting the photo on the dashboard of his van in relation to ‘revenge which knows no bounds’. What role does cutting the photo play in the revenge? Why in his van? Will he successfully carry out his revenge? On who? What did they do and why? Will his revenge know no bounds? How will this revenge mission affect him? If the revenge is successful, will he get away with it?
A CHARACTER DEALING WITH A CHANGE
Michael White – Flora and Jack
When they were first married they would go on long picnics in Epping Forest. That was before Nigel and Kate were born.
Michael has introduced a change to his character’s lives; they used to go on picnics, but what do they do instead now Nigel and Kate have been born? Readers will have to read on to find out.
Having established that a change has occurred in the main characters’ lives, Michael goes on to reveal the nature of this change while interweaving details about who the characters are.
Belinda Dorio – My Place
Children are little people trapped by their parent’s choices.
The heat bore down on me like a smothering blanket I couldn’t kick off, however frantically I tried. Even when the sun went to sleep and the moon rose, the summer nights were stifling hot in outback Victoria. I tried to block out the strangled cat noise that emanated from the house as I hurried down the back steps of the porch before picking up into a run, afraid Mum would follow me out of the house, whirling her vodka bottle or something worse.
Belinda has used a thematic statement as her first sentence (or as a prelude to her story, depending on how you want to describe it): “Children are little people trapped by their parents choices.”
A thematic statement can orient a reader to the general area to be covered in the story to come, or can encourage particular ways of thinking about the story.
Belinda’s thematic statement can encourage a reader to ask questions like: Are children little people traped by their parents choices? What would happen in particular circumstances in which a child is trapped by their parent’s choices? How can a child trapped by their parent’s choices escape? She then goes on to tell a story in which she shows characters who can serve as a practical example for exploring such questions in a specific fictional situation in which a parent’s choices are contributing to major problems to their child.
The Australian Literature Review