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#LoveOzYA Writing Tips: How do you start a story?

  • 15 October, 2020
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How do you start a story?

It’s a question every writer asks themselves, sometimes 156 times in a given drafting session, accompanied by outbursts of swearing, hair-tugging, and declarations of creative angst.

It’s also one that doesn’t have a definitive answer.

Which doesn’t mean it’s not worth asking — and this week, just in time for the unveiling of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year: Older Readers Award, the #LoveOzYA team put it to the 2020 shortlist.

From announcing a character’s mental state from the very first page, to eschewing reader hooks in favour of a stylistic anchor, these behind-the-scenes insights prove that when it comes to starting a story, there’s a million ways to skin the proverbial cat…

The Boy Who Steals Houses

If it hadn’t been so dark and if his fingers hadn’t been so stiff with dried blood, he could’ve picked the lock in thirty-eight seconds.
Sammy Lou takes pride in that record.

C.G Drews: I put a lot of pressure on my opening lines. I want them to be captivating, but also be a brief summary of my whole premise. In The Boy Who Steals Houses, Sam starts off with bloody knuckles and lockpicking — both things that define and ruin his life. It’s the first sentence I ever wrote for this book and surprisingly it has never changed! Agonising over it early paid off and set the tone and direction of the story perfectly for me.

How It Feels To Float

At three in the morning when I can’t sleep, the room ticks over in the dark and all I have for company is the rush of words coming up fast like those racehorses you see on television, poor things, and when hearts give out they are laid on the ground and shot dead behind a blue sheet.

Helena Fox: With my opening line I wanted to create an immediate, strong sense of my main character’s narrative voice and her dark, runaway thoughts. The first sentence is actually the first paragraph — it’s a single run-on sentence which takes up five
lines!

I definitely revised the opening a lot — this first line only showed up after quite a few revisions of the chapter (which actually used to be the third or fourth chapter in the book). I tried a number of openings, including a poem at once point, before landing on this beginning. Now I can’t imagine the book starting with anything else!

Ghost Bird

Fire is the centre of our world. It’s where everything happens: cooking, playing, laughing, family, story. Fire means so much more than just a bunch of burning carbon.

Lisa Fuller: That entire opening section of Ghost Bird didn’t exist until I got down in the trenches with my editor, Kristina. She suggested that I needed an opening section that would show the reader more about Tace and Laney, their relationship and their world. I liked the idea, thought about it for a while and that scene is what came out. Now it’s my favourite part of the whole book, because I feel it carries so much weight with Nan’s rules and the girls’ reactions, but also it shows the reader a lot about my mob and how we are together.

My aim though was to demonstrate that a good yarn always starts with people sitting around a fire, and that was my focus. But it’s not just about us sitting around telling stories, it’s about educating, sharing our history and connecting. I hope that’s what people get out of that opening.

When The Ground Is Hard

It’s Thursday night, so we walk down Live Long Street to the public telephone booth at the intersection of three footpaths called Left Path, Right Path and Centre Path.

Malla Nunn: I want the opening line to pull the reader into the story right away. I don’t favour explosions or big booms but my opening paras always have people in action. The characters are moving, speaking or doing. They have a place to be or a problem to solve. I don’t favour characters in deep thought!

That said, I don’t labour over opening lines or paras in the first draft of a book. I know that the final version of the opening line is right when I stop trying to change it to something better. The line holds the space.

Four Dead Queens

The morning sun caught the palace’s golden dome, flooding the Concord with light. While everyone halted their business and glanced up — as though it were a sign from the four queens themselves — we perched overhead like sea vultures, ready to swoop in and pick them apart.

Astrid Scholte: Opening lines are so important as they set the reader’s expectation for characters, tone, and sometimes, plot. With Four Dead Queens, I revised the first line countless times over my drafting processes. The first iteration was “My next target stood out from the crowd” I wanted to convey the main character’s voice as well as a hint at the plot. I checked a few of my drafts and spotted at least eight different attempts! The final version was: “The morning sun caught the palace’s golden dome, flooding the Concord with light.” This line was more focused on setting the scene and letting the audience know that they are in a fantasy world.

The rest of the opening paragraph introduced two of the main characters, and their thieving ways, and set up the main character arc for Keralie. Beginnings and endings are the most difficult to get right; they should work together to display and show the development of the main character. I believe you need to get the ending right first, before you can land on the perfect start.

This is How We Change the Ending

Dec said we wouldn’t start hunting until dark. Pitch black was better for shooting. Hard to aim fast and shoot straight when you had to sort heads from tails—when it was just two beady eyes you could aim for the middle. You don’t want to nick them, he said, especially the young ones. They never forget. Can’t chance having a wounded animal come back for you when it’s grown with a full set of teeth.

Vikki Wakefield: The opening par of This Is How We Change the Ending is unchanged from the original draft. That’s not to say I didn’t work it — I spend a lot of time perfecting the first few pages before I move on with the less polished draft. With these opening lines I aimed for some foreshadowing and a hint of the premise, but mostly it was about finding voice, tone and rhythm. I’m not that interested in beginning with a hook or a bang. When I’m writing, the first lines are for me and not the reader — I need a thread that holds tension throughout and ties to the ending, a sense of coming back to where I started.

Written by #LoveOzYA’s Alex Patrikios