The Fiction Writing Workshop: Beginnings

Kristin Bair O'KeeffeBy Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Welcome to The Fiction Workshop. Each month in 2009, I will offer strategies and exercises for writers working on novels and short stories.

Whenever my students start a new fiction project-whether it’s a short story or a novel-they ask, “Where do I start? Where do I begin?” Usually the shiny nub of an idea has been taking shape in their heads for a while, but as the potential of the story swells before them, they get overwhelmed even before they get one word on the page.

“Start in the middle of something,” I say.

Inevitably they tilt their heads, narrow their eyes, and raise their eyebrows as if to say, “You’ve got to be kidding.” This is not what they expect to hear. They expect to hear, “Start at the beginning.” And many want to hear this. After all, the urge to start a story at the “true beginning” (you know, the day the main character is born even though the book is about a murder that takes place when she’s fifty and has nothing whatsoever to do with her birth) is great, but I suggest restraint. Instead, grab and hold your reader’s interest by dropping them into the middle of something.

One of the best examples of this is the opening chapter of Kiran Desai’s brilliantly crafted novel The Inheritance of Loss that won the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

“All day,” the first chapter begins.

Those two simple words-all day-deposit us quite neatly into a specific day during which many things have obviously already been unfolding.

And then there’s Jonathan Safran Foer’s ground-shuddering novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close that begins, “What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me?”

The first time I read this book (and I’ve read it at least three times since), I couldn’t wait to find out more. “Who the heck is speaking?” I asked myself. “And what kind of questions are these about talking teakettles? And if the narrator is the kind of person to ask about talking teakettles, where exactly is he taking us?”

With this unusual line of questioning and a very intriguing narrator’s voice, Foer plops us into a story we want to know more about, a story we want to keep reading.

And that’s the goal, after all, to create a story readers want to keep reading. So in the next few weeks, take a look at the opening of that novel or short story you’ve been toiling over. Where does it begin? In the middle of something or way back before something interesting is actually unfolding? What happens if you change the beginning? Try it. See what happens.

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