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Friday, September 10, 2010

Starting a Story

How do we get students to write good story starts.  I start with the old comic strip Peanuts.

"It was a dark and stormy night," wrote Snoopy on his manual typer, atop his doghouse.

I point out that Snoopy's line is not a bad beginning, actually. It sets up drama and potential conflict through weather. Unfortunately it has become a comic cliche, thanks to Charles Shultz, and to others before him.  Most of my students still know who Snoopy is, probably because of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

Perhaps one could even use it to signal the beginning of a comic story.  Perhaps this story would have comic cliches scattered throughout. "It was a dark and stormy night, and also the best of times and the worst of times."

Poet, short story writer, novellaist, and novelist Mick White gives this example to his class to explain when a story starts:

You get up in the morning.  (story hasn't started)
You go to the bathroom and take a shower. (no story yet)
Coming back from the shower, a towel around your waste, you notice a dead woman in your bed. (now the story has started, although the opening line would need to be rewritten from what we have here).

A great opening story start sentence isn't absolutely necessary for a good story, but it can help. Here are a few from the 2009 O'Henry Prize Short Stories:

"I'm going to ask the Queen. I'm going to tell her what I know and ask her what is true, and if she winks at me, well, there will be trouble." (Graham Joyce)

"Years later, Ann saw one of her daughters." (L.E. Miller)

"Caches of old papers are like graves; you shouldn't open them." (Nadine Gordimer)

I have the students go through the short stories in the textbook, before they have read many, and look at the story openings.  We talk a while about which ones really grab our attention and draw us into the story, and which don't.

Then I have them write good openers that can be good story starts, openers hopefully that impell them as writers forward into their own story.

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