Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

The best way to begin your story

Margaret Atwood, a woman who can captivate readers from the first sentence, sits and writes “It was dark inside the wolf”. Intriguing, right? The author certainly seems to think so, as she sits back with a satisfied grin on her face after proposing this line as the opening of a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood in the trailer for her creative writing masterclass video.

Atwood is not the only writer who strikes me with their first sentences. My copy of Beloved by Toni Morrison is currently three hours away, but I don’t need to open it to know that the first lines of that story are “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” Another text that has struck me recently is from the English Literature course here at Warwick. Franz Kafka’s opening sentence of Metamorphosis: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect” is so fantastically mundane it is almost ridiculous. But what are these authors, and so many others, doing that hooks readers like me in so quickly?

The reader is thrown off-balance and given the sense that reading on is the only way to restore equilibrium 

After studying the craft in a variety of books and online courses, I have discovered that one of the many important tricks to beginning a story is to create intrigue. This is achieved by building up an expectation within the reader, only then to subvert it as quickly as possible. The reader is thrown off-balance and given the sense that reading on is the only way to restore equilibrium.

A novel that achieves this effect rather well is William Golding’s infamous Lord of the Flies. At first, the beginning seems fairly nondescript: “The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.” What expectations are built up for us readers here? A beach on a hot summer’s day, perhaps scenes of a family holiday or a trip out with friends. But Golding doesn’t take long to subvert these expectations as we quickly learn that this boy with fair hair is exploring the beach not because of a family holiday, but because he has survived a plane crash. Suddenly, we have an array of questions. Where are the boy’s parents? Did they survive? Are there any other survivors at all? How will this boy and the other boys he encounters continue to live on the island? I won’t dare spoil the answers to any of these questions, because hopefully they make you want to read this hauntingly disturbing novel if you haven’t already.

Subverting expectations is a great way to turn an ordinary scenario into something extraordinary that will make your readers want to continue on

Subverting expectations is a great way to turn an ordinary scenario into something extraordinary that will make your readers want to continue on. This is the point Atwood makes in her creative writing masterclass video. A story like Little Red Riding Hood is one that is universally known, but a writer with the right tools still has the power to catch their audience off-guard by creating intrigue and starting the story in a different way.

Too often we see the main character waking up and going about their mundane morning routine at the beginning of stories. Although, there are ways to create intrigue in even this boring setup. Perhaps your protagonist will drive to work and notice people wearing wizard’s robes, or go downstairs to breakfast only to discover their mother is missing, or, you know, wake up and realise that they have inconveniently turned into a giant, disgusting cockroach.

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