Parts of a Story – The Beginning

I’ve been asked several times by both authors and readers what is the most difficult to write: the story beginning, the story middle, or the story ending? For me, the answer is the story middle. The beginning is not only easy for me, but fun. It is a new start, after all, and it sets the stage for all that comes after it. The beginning sets the story direction. It has to entice the reader, draw the reader in, and make the reader care.

The ending is both fun and difficult. At a certain point when writing, I begin to understand how the story will end. Contrary to the opinion of some readers, I don’t believe writers know exactly how, when, where, or with whom the ending will take place. It comes about, at least for me, as I write the story.

The most difficult part of the story to write is the middle. Look at it this way. Each chapter, each bit of action, is like a bead on a wire. The beads have to fit in a particular order and in a particular way. I view each chapter as a sub-story of the whole. Each chapter keeps the reader moving along on the journey into the unknown, but vaguely familiar. Each chapter has to keep the reader’s attention and interest, and each chapter has a coherence, not only in and of itself, but in the context of the story as a whole.

If the writer isn’t careful, both the writer and the reader will get lost between the first chapter and the last. It is possible that the reader will simply give up, put the story aside and choose to not finish the journey.

For this post, let’s look at the beginning of a couple of my books.

This first example is from my book, Stolen Lives, Book One of the Lives Trilogy:

The boy’s muscles ached and he longed to stretch out, but the handcuffs prevented him from doing so. His head hit the steel wall of the dirty van each time Frank drove over a rock or a rut or pothole in the dirt road. The boy’s neck and shoulders had grown stiff from trying to cushion the blows. He shifted sideways so that his arms could take more of the pounding, but that was even more uncomfortable. He leaned as tightly against the wall as he could, pushing with his heels, but slipped on a McDonald’s bag, frowning at the mustard and pickle juice on his pants’ leg.        

In this opening paragraph, the central character, a boy, is handcuffed. He’s in a dirty van- the boy’s perception. Are you, the reader, curious enough to read more? Are you wondering why the boy is handcuffed, and why he’s in the back of a dirty van?

I wrote this paragraph knowing exactly how it would end and what the action would be. I had no clue whatsoever how this Stolen Lives would end. None. The ending hadn’t occurred to me, but neither did the middle chapters of the book. My focus was solely on the opening chapter to set the stage, to invite the reader in and say, “Let’s go on a journey together. Wanna tag along?”

Here are the next two paragraphs of the first chapter of Stolen Lives:

            The man wearing the baseball cap pulled low to his sunglasses merely glanced at the boy, but gave no hint of emotion. The boy had never seen him before, that is at least he didn’t think he did. The problem was that he had seen and had been with a lot of men so he couldn’t be sure. The way the man would look at him showing no emotion, no expression bothered him, but he wasn’t going to give into that, so he ended up ignoring him just like the man wearing the baseball cap seemed to ignore the boy and the other two men in the van.

            Ron, however, who sat in the passenger seat turned around and glared at him, his thick lips pulled back in a sneer. The boy looked away and stared at the tips of his worn-out shoes. His big toe poked out of one and the sole flapped on the other. When the boy guessed that the big man wasn’t watching him any longer and when he felt that the man wearing the baseball cap wasn’t watching, he turned back cautiously and strained to see out the windshield. Red fingers of rock poked the blue horizon. Bulky buttes formed walls on either side of the van like impatient onlookers at a passing funeral procession.

Now the reader knows a little more. There are three men in the van with the boy, and they aren’t friendly towards the boy. One man, Ron, sneers at him. The other man in the sunglasses and baseball cap merely stares at him without any emotion. And the statement, ‘The boy had never seen him before, that is at least he didn’t think he did. The problem was that he had seen and had been with a lot of men so he couldn’t be sure.’  What does that mean? Are you curious enough to find out?

Lastly, they seem to be driving somewhere in the Southwest, because of the ‘red fingers of rock’ and the ‘bulky buttes’. But the last sentence in the third paragraph hints at what is coming: ‘Bulky buttes formed walls on either side of the van like impatient onlookers at a passing funeral procession.’

For any writer, word choice is intentional. It has meaning and purpose. Words aren’t random and pulled out of nowhere. Each word, each sentence, and each paragraph serve a purpose. The purpose is to drive the story forward and propel the reader into that story and take up the journey.

Let’s look at another opening, this one from Splintered Lives, Book Three of the Lives Trilogy:

            Mike knew he was going to get shot and probably die. He didn’t have any doubt about that. He didn’t shut his eyes. He didn’t hold his breath. And yet, the sight of the gun didn’t provoke any fear.

Yes, that’s the first paragraph of Splintered Lives. Unless you’ve read the trilogy and the preceding book, Shattered Lives, Book Two of the Lives Trilogy, you, the reader, is wondering who is Mike? Why is he going to get shot? By whom? And why wasn’t Mike fearful? That paragraph was absolutely intentional, because it picks up exactly where Shattered Lives ended. I can’t give you the second or third paragraphs, because it would disclose too much. Sorry (but not really).

Next time you pick up a book (hopefully one of mine), notice the opening sentence and the opening paragraph. Take note of what you are thinking and feeling. If you are curious, interested, and you don’t want to put the book down, then the writer’s purpose was fulfilled. As I said, the purpose of any and every story opening is to draw the reader in. It invites the reader to join the writer on a journey.

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