In my online Pulp Fiction Workshop, I gave the following advice to one of my students:
Think of it this way: You have to punch your readers in the face as hard as you can in the first sentence, push them to the floor in the first paragraph, then you can tell them why you just did that in the next few pages. But it has to be in that order: punch, push, explain.
That just kinda came off the top of my head—articulating it in that way—and when I sat back and read it before sending the feedback, I patted myself on the back a bit and knew this would make a good blog post.
So, here’s that blog post.
This is about how to start a story, and though the online course focuses on the short story, the same is true for the first chapter of a novel. I’ve said before—and I’m hardly the first to say it in one form or another—but you just have to start strong.
I know you might have a favorite book that other people seem to hate. Have you ever said, “Just make it through the first hundred pages then it gets really good!”
I’ve had people say that to me about all sorts of books, none of which I’ve then gone and read.
I don’t have that many books left in me. If it’s work to get to the good part—forget it.
Honestly, as an author, I never, ever want anyone to say that about anything I’ve written, either. Your first sentence and first paragraph is your readers’ first impression of you as an author, and you only get one chance at that.
So then how do you start?
Let’s break it down:
Punch Your Readers in the Face
Also known as “start with a bang,” or as I’ve advised before, start in media res. Not only should you not be afraid of starting in the middle of an action beat but you just really should. I’ll qualify that only in so much as to broaden the definition of “action.” I’m not saying every story has to begin with violence, or physical action/fighting, but try this longer version:
Start with a character in the process of doing something interesting.
Where it might feel like a punch in the face is that we (your readers) are not warned ahead of time that this interesting thing is going to happen. We’re not told in any detail where this thing is happening. We know very little if anything about who this character is and whether or not it’s at all weird that he or she is doing this thing.
Whatever it is, it’s happening right now.
For a good example, we’ll look at the short story “Blind Date With the Devil” by John Bender from Dime Mystery Magazine, Vol. 33, No. 4, September 1946.
Here’s John Bender’s first sentence punch:
She came alert abruptly, not knowing what had awakened her, her eyes wide and searching in the darkness.
Though I’ve cautioned against the word “abruptly,” still Bender starts right in with a woman waking up . . . somewhere. She doesn’t know, and neither do we, and anyway in the first sentence it doesn’t matter yet—she’s awake suddenly and it’s dark and the fact that her eyes are wide means she’s . . . what? Worried? Scared? Confused? All those things? But in that one single sentence we’re already in the middle of an experience.
Push Them to the Floor in the First Paragraph
Here’s the rest of the first paragraph from “Blind Date With the Devil”:
For long moments she lay, staring intently at the lighter patch of darkness which was the ceiling, then she turned slowly to face the clock beside her bed. She could hear its rhythmic ticking, but could not see the time.
The only details we see is what she’s experiencing, and her experience is limited by what seems to be some kind of physical trauma, or the aftereffects of some trauma—I don’t know.
And I don’t need to know—yet. John Bender just dives right in, dragging us along for the ride. Notice we don’t even know “her” name yet. It’s just the immediate details of what she’s experiencing—and that’s all. No explanation, no “setting the scene,” no worldbuilding (well, we know there are clocks!), nothing but what’s happening right now.
Then Tell Them Why
As “Blind Date With the Devil” goes on, we start to get more detail, more background, etc., as the POV character’s experience widens out to include more details of her current environment, and as she regains her wits—but only as she regains her wits, however slowly.
The movement, slight as it was, tumbled her brain into the cloying whirlpool, and she thought with a quick despair, “No. . . !”
She buried her face in the pillow, afraid, sobbing slightly and the sickness in her relented. But the clock began ticking more and more stridently. Her fear grew less. She flung back the covers and pushed her legs out over tile floor.
Her eyes, she found, could now distinguish more clearly the outlines of the room, though she thought vaguely that she could discern a light fog touching everything. All at once the heat of the narrow bedroom clamped down on her, and she struggled into her robe, shaking her long black hair back over the collar.
From far off, as in a dream, she heard the low, long, mournful note of the fog horn on the Point. She stood there, shivering despite the first few flecks of perspiration that beaded her upper lip. And as the note of the fog horn slipped into the heavy silence of the night, she knew what she must do . . .
The clock ticked slowly, monotonously. And yet it screamed her thought:
Destroy yourself . . . destroy yourself . . . destroy yourself!
She laughed silently, lips bared wolfishly over her teeth. If she were very silent, oh so very silent, she could get down the long stairs, she could race across the hill to the little bridge. In grateful anticipation she could see even now the dark and friendly waters of the river beckoning to her . . .
And you can read the rest of the story online.
Remember: Punch, Push, Explain.