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I’ve Heard That Story Before

March 4, 2013

I read a lot of manuscripts, and I’m here to tell you there are some story openers in danger of being used more often than “Once upon a time.” Here are some beginnings I see frequently:

  • 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 out loud, “This isn’t happening.”
  • Character pondering her life, her appearance (while looking in a mirror), or the day ahead in inner monologue
  • “When [name] woke up that morning, he never imagined by the end of the day, he would end up [fill in the blank]”

I bet you think I’m going to tell you not to write one of these frequently used story openers.

I’m not.

Starting a novel with a cliché (“It was love at first sight”) worked out pretty well for Joseph Heller in Catch 22, and the character-waking-from-a-dream opener made The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka a classic. So I’m not going to tell you not to use the story beginnings I listed.

What I’m going to emphasize to you is that they’re oh-so-common. So unless you want to blend into the crowd, if you’re going to use one of these openings in your final work, you’ll want to make sure you’ve done it effectively—in an uncommon way.

But here’s something else. Did you notice that all the openings I listed have a character sitting and thinking alone? I have a theory about that. What’s the person who is writing doing? Sitting and thinking alone!

I’m going to suggest something to you. Write the sitting and thinking opening—if that’s what comes to you immediately—to get your writing pump primed. It’s a way for you to get started, a way to initiate your flow of words and ideas. It’s a way to begin solving the problems that writing a story present. Getting it right the first time isn’t important. Getting started is very important.

Confession: I didn’t know what I was going to say in this post until I wrote—and re-wrote—it. It’s likely you can’t write your “real” beginning until you know for sure what your story is about. And you probably won’t know what it’s about until you’ve worked through to the ending in your first draft.

Eventually, during revision, I’ll bet you’ll find where your story really begins.  And I’ll bet you find it begins at some point after all that sitting and thinking.
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Mary Ann de Stefano is a writer, editor, and organizer of writing workshops with 30 years of experience in publishing and writing consulting. Besides working one-on-one with writers who are developing books, she builds websites and advises on e-marketing. Mary Ann does business at MAD about Words, named as a play on her initials and love for writing.

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9 Comments
  1. March 4, 2013 10:01 am

    These are all good examples, though I wouldn’t put a book down just because it starts out in one of these ways. If it’s well written and visually pleasant, I’ll continue.

    The opening I don’t like is the one where a character is walking around in their environment and the author mentions every single detail around, as if the character hadn’t ever discovered the fine tapestry and 10 inch Victorian crown molding in her own home. To me, that’s more alarming to me than a cliched start.

    Good reminders!

  2. Mary Ann de Stefano permalink*
    March 4, 2013 10:26 am

    Good one, Diane. That’s a variation on my third bullet point. “… as if the character hadn’t ever discovered the fine tapestry and 10 inch Victorian crown molding in her own home.” I love that. It made me laugh.

    In a draft, though, I see there the writer thinking about where her main character lives and discovering that she is the type of person who would live with fine tapestry. So, I think that sort of thing is not wasted effort in draft. But it is probably doesn’t belong in the final version and certainly isn’t the kind of beginning that hooks readers.

  3. March 4, 2013 10:29 am

    “Getting it right the first time isn’t important. Getting started is very important.” That says it all.

  4. Chris Hamilton permalink
    March 4, 2013 10:43 am

    Aw crap. I wrote a first draft of a short story yesterday in which a character–you guessed it–wakes up at the beginning. Actually, she’s just laying be bed because of insomnia, but close enough. But she’s in bed with an overnight case. Why? Hmmm…perhaps someday you will find out.

    • March 4, 2013 12:34 pm

      I think when done in a movie to show a full circle like in Back to the Future with Michael J. Fox works for me. As long as there is a reason for it, I think I wouldn’t mind. My thing is, if it worked well in a movie, people will remember it, so I try to stay away from it. 😀

      She’s in bed with an overnight case because she is carrying around the head of her late husband, the one she’d murdered the night before. Am I right, hmmm? Am I?

  5. March 4, 2013 11:26 am

    Talk about openings! Clever touch to use music to introduce your theme, especially since the musician has such an “inviting, listen to me” voice. Loved it.

  6. March 4, 2013 7:12 pm

    Happy to hear an experienced writer like yourself doesn’t know what they want to say until the re-write. I call that first attempt the Kindergarten version.

  7. March 5, 2013 1:50 pm

    I love this. I write teen and tween short fiction for magazines. About half the stories in that department start with a teacher assigning a big project to the class, with one of the main characters as a main character.

    As a result, I avoid this opening like the plague. But I’ve done the wake up in the morning thing (especially if it’s a historic time or place, because you can immediately establish the setting by the differences) and the wake up from a dream thing (which is fun if it’s wacky).

    Once I did start with the project, but it wasn’t in front of the whole class–the teacher was checking in with a special needs’ student to make sure he’d understood the assignment.

    Even then, I was wincing.

    Every time I read another story that uses this opening, I just laugh.

  8. Lauren permalink
    March 26, 2013 4:48 pm

    “Tired of seeing coffee, dreams, weather, beds, alarm clocks, screaming in first paragraph. Don’t be that writer. #pubtip”

    I copied this literary agent’s tweet into my journal about four years ago. (Unfortunately, I don’t have her name.) I guess the bed and dream memes have been around for awhile…

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