A story must start with a hook – something that catches the reader, frames the story, and sets the stage. Successful authors have a variety of ways of hooking the reader in, and I thought that a careful examination of these story beginnings may help us with the telling of our own stories.
Hence, I begin my series of posts on story beginnings with one of my favorite authors, Toni Morrison, and her book, Beloved:
“124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver where it’s only victims the grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, in the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time he was 13 years old – as soon as nearly looking in a mere shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny handprints appeared the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in the heat on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the doorsill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once – the moment the House committee what was for him the one insult not to be born or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving the grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn’t have a number then, because Cincinnati didn’t stretch that far. In fact, Ohio have been calling itself to state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them.”
What I love about this beginning is that Morrison puts emotion into objects, such as the house, from the very onset. Moreover, in one paragraph, she has introduced two of the main characters, Sethe and Denver, as well as some of the background characters: Baby Suggs, Howard, and Buglar.
Notice that this intro focused on a place – the house, and also on what the house did to its residents. It isn’t an ordinary place, like one of those, “Once upon a time, it was a sunny day” type of places, but a place that possessed as much personality, SPITE, as any character in the story. Moreover, the word choice is important. Victims, instead of residents. Fleeing, running, shattering of mirrors, and the “dead” of winter. Although Morrison does not explicitly say so, we know the house was haunted, and it was haunted by something angry – something so angry, that it tormented its victims.
After reading the first paragraph, I had questions:
Why is the house haunted?
Who haunted the house?
Who are these people being tormented?
What happened to the poor soul that haunted the house – why is it so spiteful?
These questions were spaces that, as I continued to read, I hoped would be answered as I turned to the next page of the book….
So, as for our own writing, how can we use this to our own advantage?
- You don’t have to start with the main character. Start with a place, and what that place does/means to set the stage.
- You don’t have to start the story at the beginning. Obviously, this is somewhere in the middle, because we are left to wonder, “How did this all start?”
- Leave the reader wondering – let them ask questions. Hook them in!
- Word choice matters! Spitefulness is very different from being angry. It implies revenge. …and a good story with an element of revenge? It means there’s a motive!
Stay tuned for more story beginnings. I’ve got a whole collection of them to share with you!