Starting and Staying Strong

Why does Snoopy always stop typing after “It was a dark and stormy night”?

Lily Gontard, former editor of Yukon, North of Ordinary would suggest that the sentence, accepted as the worst opening line in the English language, doesn’t establish a character.

Author Shyam Selvadurai would say it raises no expectations.

And editor for Mira Books, Paula Eykelhof, wouldn’t feel compelled to read on. So what does make for a good beginning?

In short fiction and magazine features, who, what, where, when and why are standard questions that must be answered up front.

“Use the W5 paragraph to do the character development,” Gontard suggested.

For instance: I dropped to my knees in the Shrine to the Madonna, thankful to be off my feet after trekking 45 kilometres in 30-degree heat on the Jacobsweg Pilgrimage Trail.

In the beginning, it’s important to “establish character early and keep the focus on the main character,” said Gontard. “Then, write an easy-to-follow narrative.”

Shyam Selvadurai, a guest speaker at the Yukon Writers’ Festival, teaches creative writing at York University. Story beginnings “create narrative and initiate the story – sets an event in motion.

“Openings must raise questions.” He adds, “Don’t miss opportunities to paint a clear sense of everyone.” For example, if a character unties their shoes, are they sturdy leather boots or high-tech sport shoes?

A good beginning not only engages the reader, but it can also help a writer get back into a stalled story. When Selvadurai has trouble staying motivated to continue a story, he puts it aside for a while and then reads and re-works it from the beginning.

“It helps me re-engage into the story and work further into it.”

Paula Eykelhof, who specializes in single-release women’s fiction, would add that, in reviewing material, writers should “honestly and objectively answer this question: Do I want to keep on reading?”

During the Yukon Writers Conference, she gave local writers a few questions to consider.

Primarily, “Are you starting with an important change or catalyst that sets the story in motion?”

Like so: Take, for example, my return to the Pyrenees. All my 53 years had been hardscrabble, hectic and aimless, until today.

This makes the reader curious to know why today is different and what happened on the pilgrimage to give my aimless life direction. Along with introducing a major character, said Eykelhof, the opening should compel the reader to make a strong emotional connection to the story.

She also asks, “Are you including all the necessary information?” If there’s too little, the story becomes obscure and the reader becomes irritated. If there is more backstory than necessary, the past overwhelms the present.

Eykelhof expects the tone to be in keeping with the rest of the story. She wouldn’t expect a dark tone for a comedy unless the work is a black comedy, in which case the tone would grab exactly the right audience.

Once your beginning has hooked your reader, Eykelhof said, “meet the expectations you’ve raised and convey your story with integrity”.

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