How to Start A Story

I like to tell my students that the more you critique other people’s stories, the better you’ll get at seeing areas of improvement in your own writing. I am a good example of this. Since I started teaching, I have picked up on things I see a lot of my students do, and then in turn I realized that these are often things I do myself. One thing I see a lot of is stories that start with a lot of description and telling you who the characters are and what they’re like. I understand the urge to do this. Starting a story is hard, so why not just get out who we’re dealing with here? I think that works when you’re writing an early draft. I say get as much out of your head as you can at once, so if you need to do a data dump as the opening, go for it. But when it’s time to revise, I think I can make a good argument to not open your story this way.

Let’s take a look at the opening of Charlotte’s Web, which many people (myself included) consider to be one of the great openings in literature.

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”

“I don’t see why he needs an axe,” continued Fern, who was only eight. 

“Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”

Look at how much information we get from this. We know Fern lives on a farm, (and not only that, a farm which has pigs), she is eight, her last name is Arable, and as we’ll see in a paragraph or two, she is very determined when she puts her mind to something. Now look at how a first draft of this might sound.

Fern Arable was an eight year old girl with a mind of her own. She enjoyed living on the farm with her parents where they raised pigs, sheep, and geese. She didn’t like it when animals were killed, especially for what she considered to be unjust reasons. One day as she and her mother were setting the table for breakfast, Fern looked out the window and saw her father walking across the yard with an axe.

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Fern said to her mother.

Which one grabs your attention more? The one that puts you right into the action, right? Keep this in mind when revising. You only have so much time to grab a reader’s attention.

However, don’t worry about this when you’re writing. The problem I have run into with my well-developed critiquing muscles is that I recognize when I’m doing stuff I don’t want to be doing as I am doing it. Don’t get caught up in the urge to edit as you write. The ideas want out, let them get out. No one needs to see the early drafts. Then, when you go to revise, be like Papa with the axe, and do away with the words that get in the way.