Opening the story

All good stories contain mystery. Mystery invites questions. Why is a character doing this? What’s going on here? Why is this happening? How can she escape this problem? Why does she say this? What does she want? If we ask questions of the character at the start of a story, we’ll want to follow her in order to unravel the mystery. Openings should be dramatic, capture a conflict or establish a problem, reveal or hint at a dilemma that sets the story in motion, and convey urgency. First sentences, paragrapahs and scenes should make us ask, what’s going to happen next. We want to keep reading until the mystery is revealed.

If you get on the People Mover, an elevated tram that runs several stories above ground in Detroit, it takes you past one abandoned building after another. No one gets off when the tram stops for you. No one gets on but you. The People Mover is devoid of people and goes nowhere but around this devestated city in a circle, yet you want to keep going because you ask ─ what lies behind those dark holes where window glass used to be. Which people worked there? Why have they left? Where have they gone? It’s the mystery that urges us on.

Take a look at some opening sentences or paragrpahs that pique a reader’s interest, hint at a theme, pose a dilemma or establish a reason to follow the character.

“For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” The phrase “to his mind” suggests, of course, in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, that this man has solved the problem of sex not at all. The sentence puts the reader right into the character’s head, poses a contradiction that invites a question about solving the problem of sex, and hints at the theme of the novel.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day,” Stevens, the butler, opens by informing the reader, “It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.” This sets the story in motion ─ Stevens is going on a journey ─ but also raises some questions. Where? Why? Why has the journey proccupied his mind and why now is it really going to happen? The suggestion is that a lot has taken place before this sentence. This is a quiet, interior novel with profound emotion in a man who never reveals his emotions. In the first sentence the reader begins to identify with the character of Stevens.

In a dramatic opening, Hilary Mantel opens Wolf Hall with:
“So now get up.”
“Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobblestones….
“…..if he squints sideways, with his right eye he can see that the stitching on his father’s boot is unraveling.”

The story opens immediately from Cromwell’s point of view, in the middle of his boyhood trauma that determines the man he will become, which the reader sees unfold throughout this magnifiscent novel, and the story is on its way. Is the son going to survive? Why is his father attacking him?

The first step is to engage the reader so she or he wants to keep reading to learn more.

Open story with mystery

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