If you spend time worrying about the best way to start a story, you may never write it. Your first challenge is to get it on the page in any form at all. But before you release it to readers, give your opening some thought so you sink a hook firmly into readers’ brains and guts.
I offer these Before and After opening excerpts of a story titled Missing Neighbor that’s based on a personal experience.
You would not believe the adventure I had with my friend Ellie. We were scheduled to take her to the airport at ten. I texted her around nine-thirty, and she didn't reply. I tried calling a few minutes later. She didn't answer, but I assumed she was on the phone with her daughter. Her voice mail was full. Hmm. Shall I go over there now just to check? No ... she's a big girl ... I muted my ESP.
At ten I rang the bell. No answer. I rang again. And again. I pounded on the door. She's expecting us now. What the heck? I decided to call her husband, who flew east four days ago. Maybe he’d heard something.
“Bring me my phone!” I hollered to Ed, who was standing by our car watching.
Suddenly it occurred to me to try the door. She does often leave it unlocked when she's expecting people. Huh! It opened! I went in. The house was dark. And silent. I saw no evidence of life. Very creepy!
“Ellie? Ellie!” I made my way toward the back of the long everything room, noticing the door on the sun porch was closed. At the end, I saw her bedroom door was closed. What will I find if I open it? Is she sick Or worse? What if she's ... dead? I feel like I’m living the opening chapter of a thriller novel! ….
Something is dreadfully wrong! This thought roils through my head after I punch the doorbell five more times and pound on the door and get no response. I see no light behind the frosted door glass. She has to be up. Her plane leaves in two hours. What am I going to do?
“Bring me my phone!” I holler across the yard to Ed, who stands waiting at our car. I’ll call Chuck. Maybe he’s heard from her. No matter that Chuck is already in Boston, her destination today.
My eye lands on the doorknob. Of course! She often leaves it unlocked when she’s expecting someone. I press the lever and the door swings open into their huge, dark, empty everything room. Aside from a fan whispering on the ceiling, I hear no sound except my pounding heart.
“Ellie? Ellie!” My skin crawls as I creep slowly toward the end of the room. “Ellie! Are you here?” I call out over and over, but hear no response. My heart beats even louder.
Ellie can be ditzy, but this is way out of character. She’s been planning this trip for months, and I’ve been booked for the airport run from the start. Yesterday she was excited about the weekend wedding she’s heading for. I should have followed my hunch and come over thirty minutes ago when she didn’t answer my text or her phone. But hey, she was probably talking to her daughter. She doesn’t interrupt those calls. She’s a big girl. I’m not her mommy. I’d muted my ESP.
The door to the sunroom is closed. I reach the hall to her room. It’s also closed. Maybe she’s in the shower. But what if she’s sick? What if she’s gone? What if she’s … dead? I feel like I’m living the opening chapter of a thriller novel!”
“Ellie? Are you up?”
I hold my breath as I approach the door, reaching for the knob ….
~ ~ ~
You may not be surprised to learn that the Before version began life as an email, which is a great way to discover and develop a story draft. In fact, it’s just fine to send it as an email. Whether you send it or not, you may want to copy it out and develop it further. I decided to hold onto mine before sending it off and exercise a little creativity.
I realized that the creepy, horrified feeling I had as I crept through her house was the perfect beginning for a compelling mystery novel. Taking all the advice I’ve read from both fiction authors and experts like Lisa Cron in Wired for Story, I cut right to the emotion-filled point where my stomach began churning and let it build from there, looping briefly back to tell who Ellie is.
Are you curious about what I found? Was Ellie hurt or … dead? Mission accomplished.
Writing tip: write a new story or pull out an old one and find the juicy part. Rewrite the story starting with that.