Just about everyone is familiar with this beginning: In the beginning God created the heavens and earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep . . . (Genesis 1: 1-2 RSV) In a sense were playing God when we write a story. We create the characters, plot, and setting, turning a blank pagenothingnessinto a compelling story.
Not only is your first scene the first impression of a story, it is the doorway that invites your reader on a journey. First scenes are what determine whether or not your reader is going to follow your characters to the end.
Your beginning must accomplish several things:
Introduce your characters
Establish the place and time the story occurs
Introduce the conflict or point at which change begins.
Your opening sets the tone, mood, situation or problem. It actually begins in the middle of things.
Looking at the first lines of Genesis from a purely literary standpoint, the first lines introduce God as the protagonist. The time and setting (simply) is the moment of Creation, same as the point of change. Before God created the world there was nothing. For the purpose of this illustration from a literary standpoint, Nothing was what happened before the story begins. It starts in medius resin the middle of things.
Lets look at a few opening lines of other stories.
I could tell the minute I got in the door and dropped my bag, I wasnt staying. Medley by Toni Cade Bambara
This blind man, an old friend of my wifes, he was on his way to spend the night. Cathedral by Raymond Carver
She told him with a little gesture he had never seen her use before. Gesturing by John Updike
Something has already happened before the opening line. The first line is actually the middle of the story. Each story has its own history. The plot is affected by something that happened before the first sentence on the first page. In Anne Bernays and Pamela Painters book, What If? They describe story beginnings: . . . think of the story as a straight line with sentence one appearing somewhere beyond the start of the lineideally near the middle. At some point, most stories or novels dip back into the past, to the beginning of the straight line and catch the reader up on the situationhow and why X has gotten himself into such a pickle with character Y.
Take out an old story, or one youve been working on. Look at the opening scene. As yourself: Does the story have a past? Is the current conflict grounded in the history of the story? If you answer no, then you dont know your storys past well enough.
John Irving said: Know the storyas much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole storybefore you commit yourself to the first paragraph. Know the storythe whole story, if possiblebefore you fall in love with your first sentence, not to mention your first chapter.
About The Author
Rita Marie Keller has written and published numerous short stories, articles, and essays. Her novel, Living in the City was released September 2002 by Booklocker.com, Inc. She founded the Cacoethes Scribendi Creative Writing Workshop in 1999.
This article was posted on February 19, 2004