Over the last year or two I’ve delivered a few workshops and seminars on aspects of writing. Not that I’m any kind of genius, you understand, but that there are things I’ve picked up along the way that are useful for other writers to know – both from my experience of writing and from my background in psychology and counselling. It occurred to me recently that I could put some of this information into a series of blog posts as well, so as to make it more accessible for a wider number of people. So here goes.
I want to start with an old chestnut: a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Okay, I can practically hear people rolling their eyes. (Yep, that’s a disturbing sound.) I know you’ve heard this a million times before. But here’s the thing: it’s important. I’ve run short story competitions and by far the majority of entries fall down in one of these areas.
- They start in the wrong place or without something to pull the reader quickly into the story.
- They get lost in the middle and wander away from the message.
- They forget to have an ending and simply peter out, leaving the reader unsatisfied.
So…let’s start with:
The first sentence of a story is usually the one I struggle over the most. It has to be grab attention, and set a hook in order to keep that attention for long enough that the reader is caught up in the story. Ideas for making your first sentence into a hook include:
- make it startling
- make it raise a question
- make it a promise for something to come
For example, my story "Slippery Road" begins: The first time my dad died it was raining.
This is startling because we expect a person will only die once; it raises the question of how it is possible that he could have died more than once; and it promises that something unusual will come - likely the second death.
Another rule of beginnings is to start where the action is. The temptation when starting a story is to lay out the back story - the details that fill the writer's head and give full reasons and background and context for what happens. This is unnecessary. Worse, it's often boring. And boring makes a reader stop reading. Back story can come out in hints and snippets scattered through the action. Begin where things are happening. Exciting things. Not about to happen - happening already.
Start out with the main character unless you have a good reason for not doing so. Get to the story and don't waste time.
Your beginning pulls the reader in and brings them across to the middle of the story with full engagement. Once there...well, that will be covered in my next post about Middles.