Ways to begin a story (writing exercise #3)

Following along with the first two writing exercises, appropriately this one has to do with the opening of a story. What better way to begin a series of writing exercises than at the beginning?

Page 14 in the book.

“This one is in two parts. First experiment with different types of openings for different stories until you feel comfortable with the technique of each. Then see how many ways there are to open one particular story you have in mind. How does the story change when the opening changes from a generalization to a line of dialogue?

“The objective: To see how experimenting with several ways of opening your story can lead you to a better understanding of whose story it is, and what the focus of the story will be.”

The authors provide us with a plethora of examples on how to begin a story, and I’ll share a few here:

  • With a generalization: “What really separates animal from man is the ability of one to accept the unexpected as the way things are, and the inability of the other to do anything but come up with theories.” – Rita Doucette, “Bullet Adagio.”
  • With a narrative summary: “The Jackman’s marriage had been adulterous and violent, but in its last days they became a couple again, as they might have if one of them were slowly dying. – Andre Duban, “The Winter Father.”
  • With dialogue: “‘Don’t think about a cow,’ Matt Brinkley said.” – Ann Beattie, “In the White Night.”
  • With a child narrator: “I don’t have much work to do around the house like some girls.” – Toni Cade Bambara, “Raymond’s Run.”

Let’s say I want to write a story about a woman who has been married to her high school sweetheart for 20 years and is now beginning to think about leaving him – not because their marriage is a bad one, per say, but because she is simply bored and wondering what else is out there that she could have experienced.

Here are six off-the-top-of-my-head ways I could begin such a story:

  1. With a generalization: No one marries the boy next door and lives happily ever after, unless you live in rural Nebraska, or you are a character from Boy Meets World.
  2. With a description of a person: John Smith is exactly the way you would expect him to be upon learning his name: he is tall, business-like, and 100% average.
  3. With dialogue: “John, if I have to look at your toenail clippings on the floor beside the bed one more time I am walking out that door and I am taking the 1971 Vintage Port with me.”
  4. With several characters but no dialogue: Every Sunday at four-o-clock since the beginning of time my husband, his parents, and my parents have sat around a kitchen table eating an early supper followed by a board game. While my husband chews every bite of food 25 times I pretend not to notice that my mother has been wasted since coming home from church. When my father-in-law goes outside to smoke exactly two cigarettes before a rousing game of Monopoly or Sorry I tell myself that tomorrow, tomorrow by God will be the day I do something erratic.
  5. With a child narrator: At ten I met my future sister-in-law, and sometimes I wish we were still those rambunctious braided pigtailed little girls, and that I had never met her big brother.
  6. By establishing point of view: When Jane saw the dozens of tiny hairs from John’s morning shave in the sink, unrinsed, for the eighth day in a row after her last verbal attempt to stop this bad habit, she calmly picked up the $200 electric razor and walked out of the recently renovated bathroom. I’m going to put this straight into the garbage, she thought excitedly as she picked up her pace, taking the stairs two at a time.