All fiction is created out of five different ways of presenting information to the reader, called narrative modes: dialogue, description, action, thoughts and exposition. Some writers rely more extensively on one mode than on others. Hemingway makes heavy use of dialogue, while romance writers often include lots of description of characters' appearance, clothes and homes. A complete story will use all five modes, but very often the opening scene is characterized by the predominance of one mode (you have to start somewhere).
For example, Tom Wolfe's best-selling novel Bonfire of the Vanities opens with dialogue:
"And then say what? Say, 'Forget you're hungry, forget you got shot ina back by some racist cop—Chuck was here? Chuck come up to Harlem—' " "No, I'll tell you what—" " 'Chuck come up to Harlem and—' " "I'll tell you what—"
"Say, 'Chuck come up to Harlem and gonna take care a business for the black community'?" That does it.
This dialogue, it's important to note, is about race and class relations in New York City. It's also pretty confusing. Both these points are important because the dialogue thus sets the stage for the novel as a whole, which portrays big-time confusion among social classes in a city that no longer functions the way it's supposed to.
Other stories start with description of a setting, person or object that will have thematic significance. Or with a character performing some action that both launches the plot and offers insight into her as a person. Or with thoughts presented in the point-of-view character's voice. Or with exposition (this is the trickiest), in which facts are told to the reader in summary form rather than dramatized.
Once you understand the five narrative modes, you can easily write five miniopenings, letting the focus of the narrative mode spark ideas and thoughts that might not have occurred to you otherwise. As always, it's easiest to examine this process through example. We need to use a story everyone already knows, so let's choose "Cinderella." You are retelling "Cinderella," and you can't come up with an interesting opening. The traditional beginning uses exposition, summarizing events in a brief lecture:
Once upon a time there was a man with a beautiful daughter and a beloved wife. His wife died, and after a year of grief the man married again. His new wife was beautiful but selfish and vain. She and her two daughters, who were just like her, made life very hard for the motherless girl. They made her do all the washing and cleaning and cooking. After the man unexpectedly died, things became even worse for the poor child. Her stepmother made her move out of her pretty bedroom and sleep in the cinders on the hearth. From this she became known as "Cinderella."
You don't want to start your version this way. It's already been done, and besides, you don't find it very exciting. You rewrite the opening, focusing on dialogue:
"Cinderella! Have you finished the laundry yet?"
"N-no, ma'am, I was scrubbing the hearth. . . ."
Her stepmother glared at her. "That should have been done hours ago! You're a lazy, undisciplined girl!"
"Please, ma'am, the hearth was so filthy after Cook roasted that whole boar—"
"Silence! I will not be contradicted in my own house!"
Onceitwasmyhouse, Cinderella thought—but she didn't dare say that out loud.
Better? More interesting? That depends partly, of course, on your taste. Let's say you're still not pleased with it. You try a different version—and a different protagonist, who just popped into your head as you started your rapid writing—this time relying on action:
Cindy held the iron flat on the front panel of her stepsister's T-shirt. Two seconds, four, six, eight. The cloth began to smoke around the edges of the iron. Ten, twelve, fourteen. Cindy lifted the iron. A triangular scorch mark seared the exact center of Axel Rose's face. She picked up the T-shirt and held it critically to the light. The scorch went clear through the fabric. Cindy smiled. Forbid her to go to the rock concert, would they?
Better? That's still not the story you want to write? Try starting with description:
The three clones had to look alike: They shared identical genetic blueprints. But the minds that Central had transferred into the cloned bodies had belonged to three different women. There stood Anastasia in black jeans, silver-plated vest open to her navel, and mirrorshades. Next to her Drusilla looked almost bulky in her plain bolo-cloth work clothes and boots, the boots caked with what Danforth suspected was cow manure. And Cindy! Were ruffles back in style on Earth? Cindy wore real pink silk—gods, the cost—at neck, sleeves, waist, hem. Her necklace and earrings were bloodstones, vivid red, the same shade as her ear paint. Danforth thought she looked like a massacre in a lingerie shop.
Maybe science fiction isn't your thing (although at least four different science-fiction writers have updated "Cinderella" for the space age). Try an opening based on a character's thoughts, this one aimed at preteens:
It wasn't fair. No, it wasn't. She tried just as hard as her sisters, she did her schoolwork and her share of the dishes without being nagged (well, not too much) and mowed the lawn every third time. Since last year she even did her own laundry, which was more than Annie and Dru did. But did her parents care? Nooooooo. Just because she was thirteen and the twins were an ancient fourteen (big deal), they got to go to the dance and she didn't. Well, if they thought she was dumb enough to believe that was the real reason, they had another think coming. Cindy knew better. It was because Annie and Dru were Mary's real daughters and she was just a stepdaughter. Dad spent all this time telling her they were just one big happy family, all the kids treated the same—yeah, sure. Then this happens. Annie and Dru go dancing, and poor little Cindy gets to stay home and watch reruns of "Cosby." Real fair.
Now you have five openings for the same story. And while these openings for "Cinderella" are tongue-in-cheek, five narrative-mode variations for your story will probably produce one beginning that feels right.
If not, try varying your point of entry.
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