To begin at the begining of things

Once upon a time . . .

Once upon a time . . .

One of the challenges all writers have is how to grab reader interest from the get-go.  Most begin their stories or novels with one of two things:  either a large thud of expository writing, or a battle/car chase/explosion of some sort (either physical or emotional) in which bad things happen to characters no one yet cares about.

May I suggest there is a better way?  In the beginning of your work, communicate three things:

  1. What your character yearns for; what he longs for with all his heart and soul.  This should be something meaningful, something worth yearning for and something that’s going to hold the reader interest over the course of your work.
  2. Why your character cannot easily attain what he longs for.
  3. An initiating incident that shows the reader something new has begun or something has changed, forcing your character out of his familiar (even if uncomfortable) world.

If you can do that — and if you can do it through the use of sense details, dialogue and action rather than a thud of exposition — you will be well on your way to luring your reader down the path to the deeper, more complicated, regions of your fictional forest.

The decision of where in the story to start is usually arrived at by trial and error.  Meg Files, in Write From Life, gives us a metaphor for the story beginnings:

A story on the page is like a house where a party is going on.  The reader enters the story by opening the front door (no knocking necessary).  The party is already in progress.  Nobody introduces the new guest.  The partiers are too far gone already.  There’s a drunk in the kitchen, an argument in the living room, a pair kissing in the bedroom.  The reader begins by stepping into the middle of the story, at a critical point perhaps, just before the neighbors’ complaints bring the police pounding on the door.

 As we begin writing a story, we don’t know what all is going to happen or who is going to show up, so we get started however we can. We spend three pages making canapés and cleaning house.  And that’s okay.  Later though, we delete those pages and find the true beginning.

I talk about opening in greater detail in this interview with CBC Reads and we’ll also be discussing it in this month’s Sharpening the Quill Workshop on June 29th, in case you’d care to join us.


  1. Peggy Hughes on June 23, 2013 at 8:49 am

    hi Lauren, this is insighful and very helpful. I loved your interivew with CBC, you come across as though you were right in the room with me having a conversation at my dinner table.

    Having read a number of interviews you’ve given, and your blog, it seems to me you’ve found your own natural voice — do you have trouble sticking to it?

    • Lauren B. Davis on June 23, 2013 at 10:06 am

      Thanks very much, Peggy. About sticking to the voice — if it’s natural then one has no trouble sticking to it. The challenge for writers is to uncover their voice — who they are, authentically, on the page — from the layers of expectation of what a writer SHOULD sound like. When you stop trying to sound so ‘writerly’ and just write as you speak, then you’ve found your voice.

      • Peggy Hughes on June 23, 2013 at 2:26 pm

        Thanks your feedback Lauren, makes a lot of sense!

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