Story Openings: Simple Advice

‘How on earth did Brian work me into this essay on writing?”

Story openings are daunting. Just trying to start can bring you to a full stop. Like a golf swing, there are so many things to bear in mind:

  • Grab the reader.
  • Introduce the POV protagonist.
  • Initiate character and thematic arcs.
  • Start immediately with the inciting incident.
  • Craft a memorable first line.

These bits of advice (grab the reader is more of a demand) can freeze a writer at the keyboard. At the risk of turning a natural chill to perma-frost, let me add one more bit of advice that might help with the rest. Start simple.

Let me explain with an example from music. When I was in my twenties, I played guitar in several bands. A friend (who looked like Bob Denver from Gilligan’s Island and played like Eric Clapton) offered this advice for soloing. “Start simple. Play a few licks they’ve heard before you launch off into your crazy shit. If you give them something they can wrap their heads around to start with, they’ll stick with you.” (A lick is a stock pattern or phrase that catches the ear.)

Let’s translate the advice to writing. Don’t use complicated or cluttered sentences. Don’t be abstract. Don’t be overly poetic. Save your adjective and adverb modifiers for later. Let readers get the rhythm of your prose before you yank them down your dark path.

As an editor, I often see story openings that try to impress with complex poetics, only to slip back into the author’s natural voice. A false opening voice is a death knell for a submission.

Instead, focus on your characters and plot. This means that in the hierarchy of imperatives, where you start your story might be more important than how you start. When you revise, ask yourself the question would-be time travelers ask: What would I change if I knew then what I know now?  Writing a novel? You started months or years ago. Luckily, authors can go back in time, knowing full well how things turned out.

In fact, your story’s opening may just be the last thing you write before finishing the novel. And when you revisit that opening, my advice still holds true. Start simple. Let the story unfold—you have miles of pages to go before the end.

A parting thought…if the beginning is the last thing you write, then the pressure is off. You are free to write.

Interested in some inspiration? Visit the following website, which opening lines thought to be the best in the history of literature:

And because breaking rules is the only sure rule, some of these classic lines don’t follow my advice. Can you spot which ones?


About Brian C. Kaufman

Author, educator, cook. Given a tilt of fate, that might have been lead guitarist, pro wrestler, radio evangelist. You never know.
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