Episode 21: Great Beginnings

On December 1, 2018 we began a three-part series on the structure of a story. Here are the show notes:


Dr. Kasie Whitener, Clemson Road Creative, fiction writer

Rex Hurst, English Instructor, fiction writer

Theme for the day

Great Beginnings


  • Who we are and why we’re here
  • The topic for the week: Great beginnings – where does the story start?
  • Book discussion — currently reading and its analysis through the lens of the topic
  • Craft book discussion — Elizabeth Berg’s Escaping into the Open
  • Famous Quotes – brought to us by Bonnie Stanard, show patron and Historical Fiction author
flight sky earth space
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Segment 1

NaNoWriMo wrap up — how did it go? What did you love about it? What did you hate about it? What are the next steps?

Some NaNoWriMo Success stories: visit twitter, use #NaNoWriMo and you’ll see people posting pics of their “Winner” congratulations screen.

I got distracted by an entire thread of replies about failing #NaNoWriMo2018 it was great.

Segment 2

Let’s talk about beginnings. Where does the story start?

Our Columbia II SCWA chapter is good about asking this question. A lot of stories begin where the writer’s thought process begins. Then what you have is the first three or four pages are walking us through the set-up, explaining who the characters are, setting the scene. And all of that work has to be done, to be sure, but it’s not part of the story. It’s part of the process.

This blogger suggests the story should begin with an event — ACTION — that changes every day life for everyone involved.

The vocabulary for this is “inciting incident” which is the thing that makes today different from yesterday. The thing that makes us want to pay attention to these people right now.

This blogger spells it out like this:

An actual event – a funeral, a wedding, we’ve talked about rituals before; the last day of school, a new kid showing up and standing up to the bully. Some classic inciting “event” incidents:

A realization – the character discovers something that changes how he or she has been navigating the universe.

Some questions to ask yourself (courtesy of this blogger and book author) to determine where to begin the story:

What is the first dramatic event?

What is your first major plot point?

What are the three essentials (Hitler. Invaded. Poland.)?

Here are 10 ways to open the story in a way that hooks readers, hints at what’s to come, and makes your story action-driven instead of a set-up for future action:

  1. Build momentum — “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.” – Flannery O’Connor – it’s got a character (stubborn old lady), plot (a journey), and conflict (unwanted)
  2. Resist the urge to start too early — like waking up for what will be a challenging day; waking up is not dramatic.
  3. Avoid the “big” hook and the likelihood that it will end up disappointing the reader.
  4. Open at a distance and then close in – the opposite of cinema
  5. Avoid getting ahead of your reader – a clever but confusing first line that only makes sense after the reader has read on and understands the importance of it.
  6. Start with a minor mystery – especially if the narrator is befuddled
  7. Be wary of beginning with dialogue – the middle of a conversation can be difficult to zoom out of and then back in to.
  8. Be mindful of what works — read short story anthologies and literary journals for the first line of every story and evaluate which ones make you want to read on.
  9. Write several versions and try them out.
  10. Revisit the beginning once you reach the end.

There are some cliche beginnings that should be avoided like:

  • A character waking up
  • Character looking out a window and thinking about the weather
  • Character thinking about the setting, reviewing the objects in a room
  • Character thinking or saying aloud “this isn’t happening”
  • Character pondering his/her own appearance in a mirror

If the writer is sitting alone and thinking, then he writes the character doing the same thing. But again, that’s a good place for your thoughts about the story to begin, not necessarily a good place for the story itself to begin.

12 Ways to Start a Novel gives us a great set of examples of

  1. “It was” and “This is” novels — “It was love at first sight.” Joseph Heller, Catch 22; “It was a pleasure to burn.’ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451; “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
  2. Viewpoint on life opening lines — “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina; “Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden.” David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System
  3. Mid-Action opening lines — “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury; “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway;
  4. Dialogue opening lines — “To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.” Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses;
  5. Landscape opening lines — “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.” Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
  6. Character introductions — Let’s meet Jack or Jill – “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Vladimir Nabakov, Lolita; Meet my friend, Jack – telling us about the narrator and the main character; the I Am opening such as “Call me Ishmael.” Herman melville, Moby Dick and “I am an Invisible Man.” Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man.

Segment 3

Book discussion – what are you reading now? What kind of first line or opening scene does it have?

Craft Book — new one for December Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True by Elizabeth Berg. It’s about her process and the freedom she finds in writing. We’ll shar just the opening passage and the inspiration for the book this week.

She begins each chapter with a quote which is a perfect way to introduce our new segment sponsored by Bonnie Stanard, whose advertisement you hear for Master of Westfall Plantation during the commercial break.

I’ll share first the one from our book’s opening chapter — “Language is the only homeland,” Czeslaw Milosv (pronounced tesLATH MeWash) a Polish Poet.

Famous Quotes

I try not to think of #writing as a burden at all. My job is to fall in love…. It’s really about being inspired and being in love…. If it starts to feel like a responsibility and it starts to feel like homework…I need it to feel like a love affair.
@Lin_ManuelMiranda, author of Hamilton: The Musical, In the Heights

Only a generation of readers will spawn a generation of writers.
— Steven Spielberg

Ready to support Write On SC? Go to Patreon.com.WriteOnSC and become a contributor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s