January 13, 2016

Over the next few months, Poynter will publish shortened versions of 21 chapters of the book “Help! for Writers,” by Roy Peter Clark. Published by Little, Brown, the book lists common problems writers face and offers 10 solutions for each of the problems.

Problem 8: I don’t know how to start my story.


1. Collect examples of good beginnings. Read them for inspiration.

If you want to write good beginnings, read some. Pay special attention to any form of expression that depends upon a good beginning. What constitutes a good start in a poem, a movie, a weather report, a song? Try Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse-Five: “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his.”

2. Ask yourself: What is most important here?

News judgment is the ability to separate the interesting and important from all other aspects of life. It is part of the civic responsibility of the reporter to make important things interesting enough so that readers will pay attention. Ask yourself these questions: What matters to you (the writer)? What do you think matters most to readers? What part of the story is likely to have the greatest impact? What might change the way the reader sees or experiences the world?

3. Ask yourself: What is most interesting?

Interesting things are not always important, but they can help move the reader toward a topic of great relevance. Look for the fact, detail, or anecdote that one person is likely to pass along to another. While there is no foolproof formula for interestingness, there are some reliable topics: funny pets and other animals; clever or obnoxious little children; sex in all its varieties; implications and consequences; celebrities at their worst; plastic surgeries gone wrong; miracle cures. If you need more, just buy a supermarket tabloid and check their stories against my list.

4. Decide what the reader needs to know first.

“If you owe the government taxes and fail to file by midnight tonight, you may be in trouble. After all, the feds never got Al Capone for being a mob chief and killer. They got him for tax evasion.”

Or, “With a possible Category Three hurricane headed our way, it’s time to take action to protect yourselves, your property, and your pets.”

Or, “Only a handful of tickets remain on sale for American Stage’s wildly popular production of Hair. If you want in, act now.”

5. Find a clue to plant early to foreshadow meaningful themes and events.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark remember when Indiana Jones steals the sacred statue and then has to escape from all the traps in the cave? He finally gets into a small plane and, thinking he’s almost safe, looks down to find a snake at his feet. Remember what he says? “I hate snakes!” A not too subtle foreshadowing of a later scene in which he must descend into a tomb crawling with…you guessed it.

6. Think of a scene or anecdote that captures what your story is about.

In a narrative, a scene is usually followed by another scene. Several scenes in a sequence create the forward motion in a story. An anecdote can sometimes stand alone. It’s a “short account of an interesting or humorous incident.” Here’s an anecdote from Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post on Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau: “He is a millionaire many times over, but Jane cuts his hair.” His wife cuts his hair. A five-word anecdote.

7. Choose a main character and decide when your readers will meet that person.

In most cases, your main character will come first in your narrative. There are creative exceptions, to be sure. But it makes sense for the writer to point a camera at the character whose actions will be governed by the focus of the story. The protagonist appears right out of the chute in the opening of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain: “Ennis Del Mar wakes up before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminum door and window frames. The shirts hanging on a nail shudder slightly in the draft. He gets up, scratching the grey wedge of belly and pubic hair, shuffles to the gas burner, pours leftover coffee in a chipped enamel pan; the flame swathes it in blue.”

8. Ask yourself, “If I were making a movie of my story, what image would the viewer see first?”

Think of your story as a movie will force you to report and write cinematically. This sentence, for example, is the first line of a popular book that would become a famous movie: “The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.” If you can write a lead with “naked” at the beginning and “dead” at the end, you’ve got your mojo working. The author is Ian Fleming, the character being described is Red Grant, a foil of 007 James Bond, in From Russia with Love. I’m hooked.

9. Find a beginning that appeals to the senses with details readers can see, hear, or smell.

We talk about the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. But we also talk about sensitive people who seem to have a sixth sense. And we use the word “sense” to preface other powers of perception and action: a sense of humor or a sense of decency. Sometime we use language that cuts across senses, a poetic technique with the name synesthesia. When we call a piano solo crisp or a color loud, we are practicing that rhetorical strategy.

10. Begin the story in the middle of things.

Beginning in the middle, a strategy that goes back to the classical epic, gives reader and writer two great advantages: 1) immediate action and a forward stab into the narrative; 2) the ability to flash back, recovering missing history or context. Consider these openings that thrust us into the middle of things: “She stood now in the doorway of the plane, suddenly doubting her decision to make her first parachute jump on her seventieth birthday.” Or, “What do you mean she’s going to be arrested?”

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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