In a story, things happen. And they don’t happen in a nice, predictable pattern. Telling a story isn’t like playing a game of chess. The writer doesn’t have to have the board all set up and the pieces all arranged just so before starting the story. In fact, messiness is desirable at the start. “In media res” is a piece of writing advice I like. It means, begin in the middle of the action. Another piece of advice I like about writing is, never tell the reader more than they need to know at that precise moment in time. In the perfect book, the reader always wants to know a little more than they do know. That’s why they turn the page.
Of course a book doesn’t have to start with a battle or an alien invasion. As long as something is happening, there’ll be readers who will follow you. What do you think of the following scenarios, for example.
1. “I’m pregnant, Don. And it’s not yours.”
2. I heard the car coming and looked up from weeding my flower garden. We didn’t get many visitors out here in the country. I never expected this one. The daughter I hadn’t seen in ten years got out of the car. She wasn’t alone.
3. I recognized the ring tone as I answered my cell.
“Hi, Granny,” I said, smiling.
“I’ve shot your grandfather,” she said. “I just thought you should know.”
I’m not saying these are beautifully written opening lines but at least something is going on in them. My thinking is that all three of these are essentially literary openings. The stories that developed from these would most likely be primarily about human relationships, either their development of their destruction. I might not actually want to read any of these stories, although #3 sounds the most interesting to me. I’m a genre junky. I don’t often read stories that are solely about relationships. For me, a writer needs something like:
1. She looked like she was about twelve years old until she pulled the gun on me.
2. The howling began around dark. I should have left the cabin then. But the sound was far away and I told myself it was only wolves. Besides, I was expecting friends to join me for a weekend in the woods.
By midnight my friends hadn’t arrived and the howling was closer. It was closer and all around the cabin. And it didn’t sound like wolves anymore.
3. The ship plunged through the atmosphere, burning as it went. Only a fragment hit the earth. But that fragment was alive.