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3 Craft Techniques for Writing Better Story Beginnings

Our mission at Writers’ Studio is to bring together writers and their craft. The community aspect of this is obvious—we host a weekly book club and accountability group, and in our monthly classes we welcome sharing our writing and our ideas with others, entering into valuable conversations about writing and craft.




But what is craft?


It’s a complex question. In Craft in the Real World, Matthew Salesses spends a whole chapter on the topic: see “What is Craft, 25 Thoughts”). His take is nuanced and valuable, but for beginning writers, it may be helpful to simplify: Craft is craftmanship. You practice craft when you deliberately use specific techniques and skills to best convey your message to your intended audience.


Salesses argues, “Craft is a set of expectations.” These are the expectations that your reader carries with them (based on their cultural context) when they set out to read your story, novel, poem, or essay, and if you fail to meet these expectations, they will quit reading.

Craft is a set of choices the author makes, balanced by the needs of the message/story and the demands of the reader, which creates problems the writer must solve. Or another way to think about it is figuring out what questions you must address and answering them with craftmanship strategies.




In this month’s class, Posing the Emotional Question: Developing POV in Fiction, Oso Guardiola’s craft lecture addressed ways fiction writers can pose a specific set of questions:


  • Why is the story I’m telling worth being told?

  • Why will my intended audience find it worth reading?

  • What does the story mean to its narrator?

  • What is compelling the narrator to tell the story?

In general, these questions address what an American audience of literary fiction expects in the beginning of a story. Which is to say, to be hooked into the story by a character who has something interesting to say about a situation that involves some sort of conflict. But what does that look like executed with craft on the page?


For Guardiola, it breaks down to

3 Craft Techniques for Writing Better Story Beginnings


1. Provide “omens.”

A story gives its reader a character’s journey (often called character arc). The protagonist at the beginning of the story doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but the storytelling is triggered by certain omens, signs, clues, or foreshadowing that something life-changing is about to happen.


2. Give the reader a sense of transgression.

Readers expect conflict, and conflict can stem from bad behavior or stepping out of line. Sometimes the transgression can be effective if it’s only hinted at. Or if it piques the readers curiosity: Will this character behave badly? Why? How?


3. Conclude the opening by raising an emotional question.

Characters’ stories are triggered by something that has had a profound emotional impact. The story itself is how the character makes sense of what he/she/they have suffered. By raising an emotional question for the character, the reader then becomes curiously engaged. Readers will keep be invested in the story because they want to find out how the character answers the question.


Let’s look at this in action. Guardiola gave the class this opening from Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden):


I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Paramo, lived there. It was my mother who told me. And I had promised her that after she died I would go see him. I squeezed her hands as a sign I would do it. She was near death, and I would have promised her anything. “Don’t fail to go see him,” she had insisted. “Some call him one thing, some another. I’m sure he will want to know you.” At the time all I could do was tell her I would do what she asked, and from promising so often I kept repeating the promise even after I had pulled my hands free of her death grip.


*Omens: We clearly sense that this character’s life is about to be upended, though we don’t know how yet. The why is clear: he has promised to embark on the quest to find his father.


*Sense of transgression: There’s a hint that the father might be a bad person. (“Some call him one thing, some another.”) There’s also a nagging feeling that the protagonist might transgress. Will he fulfill his mother’s dying wish or not? He’s made the promise without really thinking it through yet. (I would have promised her anything.)


*Emotional Point: Rulfo ends this passage with an image with significant emotional impact: I had pulled my hands free of her death grip. The character’s fragile emotional state and trauma suffered are clear: he’s grieving. It’s raised the stakes and our investment in this story. The protagonist’s emotional question is: “Why did my mother make me promise to meet my father? Yes, why? the reader echoes, and then reads eagerly on.


Here's another example from the opening of my manuscript-in-progress called The Hand-Me-Down Dieter.


I was in the third grade the first time I binged so hard that I threw up. I didn’t make it to the toilet because it didn’t occur to me that I was sick, at least not with the flu or something like that. I laid in bed with a gut ache so bad it throbbed like a headache until I started up-chucking mom’s seven-layer taco salad. Vomit flew straight onto my bed in a brown soggy pile. “What is wrong with you?” Mom asked. You’re old enough to know better.” I stood over the edge of the bed as she scrubbed the vomit stains off my mattress. I stared at the ugly brown carpet of my new room, which I hated. We’d just moved because dad lost our family’s farm in a bank foreclosure. That was the year Dad kept drinking and never stopped.


*Omens: This is an inciting incident because it’s the first time it's beginning to dawn on the character that something is not right. (It didn’t occur to me that I was sick, at least not with the flu.) This shows the reader in that the character has an inkling that her eating is disordered, but hasn’t fully realized it, but also indicates that the narrator does know, so here the narrative distance is established.


*Sense of Transgression: There are two transgressions: the protagonist vomited on the bed and the Dad kept drinking and never stopped. These events are linked in this opening which raises the question for the reader: What’s the relationship between the protagonist’s binging and her dad’s drinking?

*Emotional Point: This passage ends with the big trauma the family has suffered: they were uprooted from their home. The narrator hates the ugly brown carpet of her new room (which echoes the disgusting brown of the vomit), but we understand that her emotional question is much deeper than that, and she’s echoing her mother’s question: What’s wrong me?


These three things are not a hard and fast formula, but if you pay attention to the openings in fiction stories, you’ll start to see these techniques show up time and again.


Exercise:

Read the opening paragraph of 3 different pieces of fiction. See if you can locate: 1) the omen, 2) the sense of transgression, 3) the emotional point.


Then, answer the following questions (from Guardiola’s lecture):

  • What is this story about? What suffering, encounter, undergoing, is the character trying to make sense of?

  • Where does that undergoing begin for them?

  • What is the emotional point, emotional question, that triggers the telling of the story?

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