Just about everyone is familiar with this beginning: “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep . . .” (Genesis 1: 1-2 RSV) In a sense we’re playing God when we write a story. We create the characters, plot, and setting, turning a blank page—nothingness—into a compelling story.
Not only is your first scene the first impression of a story, it is the doorway that invites your reader on a journey. First scenes are what determine whether or not your reader is going to follow your characters to the end.
Your beginning must accomplish several things:
Introduce your characters
Establish the place and time the story occurs
Introduce the conflict or point at which change begins.
Your opening sets the tone, mood, situation or problem. It actually begins in the middle of things.
Looking at the first lines of Genesis from a purely literary standpoint, the first lines introduce God as the protagonist. The time and setting (simply) is the moment of Creation, same as the point of change. Before God created the world there was nothing. For the purpose of this illustration from a literary standpoint, Nothing was what happened before the story begins. It starts in mediums res—in the middle of things.
Let’s look at a few opening lines of other stories.
I could tell the minute I got in the door and dropped my bag, I wasn’t staying. “Medley” by Toni Cade Bambara
This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night. “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver
She told him with a little gesture he had never seen her use before. “Gesturing” by John Updike
Something has already happened before the opening line. The first line is actually the middle of the story. Each story has its own history. The plot is affected by something that happened before the first sentence on the first page. In Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter’s book, What If? They describe story beginnings: “ . . . think of the story as a straight line with sentence one appearing somewhere beyond the start of the line—ideally near the middle. At some point, most stories or novels dip back into the past, to the beginning of the straight line and catch the reader up on the situation—how and why X has gotten himself into such a pickle with character Y.”
Take out an old story, or one you’ve been working on. Look at the opening scene. As yourself: Does the story have a past? Is the current conflict grounded in the history of the story? If you answer no, then you don’t know your story’s past well enough.
John Irving said: “Know the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph. Know the story—the whole story, if possible—before you fall in love with your first sentence, not to mention your first chapter.”