Do you find it difficult to write introductions for stories?
The answer here is likely yes, as most writers do.
Because as Jane Austen would say, it is a truth universally acknowledged…
…that a writer who is in the business of writing stories, must be constantly in want of creative new ideas for introductions. (Note: Jane Austen didn’t actually say that)
But it has been said that the introduction is the hardest part to write in any piece of creative work. As in real life, the beginning is always the hardest. Like moving to a new city. Or learning a new workout routine. Or sticking to said workout routine.
The same is true for stories.
This is the reason why some writers delay working on the introduction because of the huge amount of creative energy and stamina that they think they need just to start writing.
Don’t let fear hold you back. Writing a good introduction or opening to a story is challenging, but not impossible.
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Strategies on writing introductions for stories
Let’s remove the guesswork and jump right in. Here are some strategies for story introductions that you can use as a springboard for your own ideas.
Strategy #1: Use your senses
Some writers feel the need to explain everything about their world at the very start of their stories. So they’ll put everything in- character history, setting details, important events that happened prior, etc.
However, they sometimes get so carried away with this that instead of having a proper story introduction it becomes an endless exposition of information instead, like a Wikipedia article.
So how do we avoid info dumping on our poor readers?
Constraints, as most people say, inspire creativity. In this case, try to constrain yourself on describing only what the senses can hear, feel, see, smell, taste.
Are you writing an introduction to a cyberpunk story set in the industrial slums of some dystopian futuristic world? Then try narrating what the character is smelling.
The scent of pollution. The pungent smell of grime, smoke, and garbage. How it’s like running into a giant wall of sewage whenever the character steps outside his home and the scent hits his nose.
When you get the sensory details right, you’re creating a tangible image in your intro that your audience can immediately absorb.
Strategy #2: Start with a short punchy sentence
A single well-crafted sentence is enough to pique one’s curiosity. For example:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”–J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
What is a hobbit? Why are they living in holes in the ground?
Or this particularly funny and very apropos to our situation example:
“I have no idea how to write this stupid book.”–Jesse Andrews, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Who is the “I” in this sentence and why is he writing the book in the first place?
A good opening sentence gets the ball rolling. It makes the reader ask questions.
Strategy #3: Surprise the reader
The element of surprise can work in your favor. Think about the introductory sentence to The Metamorphosis:
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”–Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
What’s great and unique about The Metamorphosis’s opening is that it’s written in such a matter-of-fact way, almost as if there’s absolutely nothing weird about this guy turning into a cockroach-human hybrid. Like this is something that happens fairly regularly in this world.
It’s surprising because we expect that an unusual event such as a man turning into a cockroach would be written in a more urgent and/or comedic tone.
But nope, it’s treated and narrated like it’s any other boring day. We feel so weirded out, so intrigued by what’s happening that we are compelled to read more.
Strategy #4: Drop the reader right in the middle of the action
This is an opening strategy as old as the history of literature itself. In medias res is what the technique is called- Latin for the phrase “in the midst of things.”
In the Iliad, a Greek narrative poem written in the 8th century BC, the author Homer drops the reader right in the middle of the Trojan War. The armies of the Trojans and Achaeans are fighting each other and we’re seeing the action unfold as it happens.
In another epic poem, The Divine Comedy- written in the 14th century by Dante Alighieri- also opens in a similar fashion. Here we find the protagonist in the middle of a forest with no explanation as to why he got there. The protagonist is confused as well as the readers. In turn, we keep reading on to find out how he got in that predicament in the first place.
So get right into the middle of the fight. Don’t expound on anything or even try to explain why things are happening, especially in a story introduction. The details and the explanations can come much later on.
Strategy #5: Introduce characters as if you were introducing them to your friends
For a lot of character-driven novels and short stories, try to highlight the characters- especially the main characters- right from the start.. Introduce them in a way that will make a reader want to know them better. Like you were introducing one of your oldest friends to a colleague at work. What are the things that you want to highlight about them? What makes them interesting?
This is how GRR Martin begins the book A Game of Thrones in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. The first chapter, though written in third-person, is told from the point-of-view of one of the main characters, Bran Stark (note: this technique is also known as a “limited omniscient” POV or “close third”).
Through Bran’s eyes we are introduced to some of the book’s primary characters as well as their relationship dynamics. We learn that Bran has siblings, as well as a bastard brother named Jon Snow. He also has a dutiful, no-nonsense father (Ned). Through his interactions with the other characters, we learn about their personalities: Jon is serious like their dad, Robb is happy-go-lucky, and Ned’s ward Theon is insufferable. This introduction is like a snapshot of their personalities.
This kind of character-centered introduction works so well because it makes characters more fleshed-out and more real versus merely introducing them through an exposition of their qualities (e.g. Edward was tall, dark, rich, and handsome.)
Strategy #6: Find a unique voice
When writing a story told in the first-person, then it’s essential to start with an opening that showcases your protagonist’s unique voice.
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like…, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”–JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
This very iconic opening line to The Catcher in the Rye just oozes with teenage angst. From the tone alone we can infer that this protagonist (a sixteen-year old named Holden Caulfield) has a lot of anger and apathy in him. We get a clear sense of his voice as well as his character.
If you’re writing a story in third-person, then your opening should reflect YOUR own writing voice as an author.
For example, Ernest Hemingway wrote in short, choppy sentences with no adornments whatsoever. William Faulkner liked long, complex sentence structures. James Joyce liked internal monologues and wordplay.
You can learn from these writers- but never copy them. Find your own unique writing voice that is distinctly YOU, and then showcase it in your introduction.
What to avoid in introductions for stories
1. Going on and on about the history of a character
If there’s no creative or narrative reason for it, don’t bore readers with too much information about the backstory of a character. It’s best to intersperse bits and pieces of characters’ histories throughout the text, and not in long, meandering expository paragraphs.
2. Telling what’s coming next instead of showing
As the Golden Rule of Writing tells us: Show Not Tell. When you start to explain what is coming next in the story, then it means that you’re TELLING and not showing.
An example of telling:
“Anthony traveled for three days and three nights. When he arrived at the hotel, he was so exhausted and hungry. He called for the front desk manager and asked for a room.”
An example of showing:
“Anthony arrived at the hotel, slowly dragging his luggage behind him. Those three days and three nights of traveling had finally caught up to him. With a loudly grumbling stomach, he hauled himself up to the front desk, called for the manager, and asked- in a very hoarse whisper- for a room.”
“Showing” a story paints a more vivid picture than just merely “telling” it. When your goal is to hook people through your introduction, you have to make an effort to SHOW your world instead of just telling your audience about it.
3. Summarizing whole plot points of the story
Give your audience a small slice of your story, but not the whole pie! How do you know if you’re summarizing?
- You’re stating things that are obvious to a viewer.
- You’re narrating one event after another with no narrative break in between.
- You’re simply describing events as they happen.
Remember: mystery keeps your audience engaged. Remove the mystery, and you risk losing your readers’ interest.
4. Narrating a story that hasn’t much to with the main plot of a book
All parts of your story should be connected to each other. Even if you have written an enthralling and mesmerizing introduction, if the reader feels that it’s not connected to the rest of the story’s plot, then your effort will be all for nothing. An example of this would be an introduction telling the backstory of some side character who only plays a very minor role in the book.
If your introduction is not setting up something or not doing anything for the plot, then either rewrite it or remove it entirely.
Why bother writing introductions for stories?
Usually, the introduction’s length is relatively short compared to the rest of the text in the story. It rarely goes past the length of one chapter. You can even find books with single-page introductions, or even more rarely, one-paragraph ones!
So, why do we even bother writing it?
First off, the introduction acts like a bridge that can transport your readers from their own worlds (aka “real life”) to the world that you have created in your story. You’re giving them all that they need to understand this world, its characters, and the central conflict that lies at the heart of everything.
Secondly: you will never get a chance to make another first impression. First impressions last, as the saying goes, and these initial impressions matter a lot. The introduction sets the stage for the rest of the story, and gives your audience a peek of what they might expect to happen as they read through your book.
What are the elements that introductions for stories should establish?
Almost all stories, no matter what length or genre, must establish four key elements right at the very beginning:
You can’t tell a story without characters in the same way that you can’t play a game without chess pieces. Characters’ actions move the plot along, so introducing the main players right at the start of the story is almost always the correct move in story-writing.
There are several different POVs you can consider. These are first person (I), second person (you), and third person(he/she/they). Third person is further categorized into, third person omniscient (narrator knows everything that is going on) and third person limited (narrator only has access to one character’s “eyes” and thoughts).
Through whose eyes are we “viewing” the story? Is it through one of the main characters themselves ? Or through an omniscient observer who is following the characters around like an invisible cameraman?
It’s important to note that some writers actually switch points of view around throughout the course of a book. This is mostly done for creative effect. A few examples of books that utilize multiple POVs include GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell.
But right from the start, we should know whose shoes we are wearing as we experience the story.
In what kind of world does your story take place? Where is it happening and when? For a lot of books in the fantasy genre, the setting can play a huge part in shaping the story.
The big problem of your story that needs to be solved is its conflict. Though the conflict need not be that obviously apparent in your introduction, you need to allude to it at the very least. The audience needs to know what is at stake, and hinting at a major conflict (or two) in the introduction is a great way to show that.
Why do writers like to save writing the introduction for last?
You can start working on your introductions for stories at any part of the writing process. There’s no hard rule that tells us that it should be written dead last. But lots of authors do tend to put off writing it until they’ve finished the rest of the story. Here’s why:
1. Editing the whole story is easier
Consider this scenario: You’ve crafted the perfect introduction, but as you build more of your story, you soon find that it doesn’t work as well as it should anymore. The only solution now is to rewrite or delete everything.
This situation could’ve been avoided if you’d written the introduction well after the story had been finished.
2. Introduction will flow better
The introduction is what sets the scene for your story. You’ll get a clearer picture of what you’re supposed to write once every detail and plot point is in place.
Helps avoid writer’s block
It’s human nature to want to avoid starting something. When you start in the middle, you’re basically avoiding that mental resistance that most people have when it comes to beginning any kind of creative venture.
A good story introduction is more than just a brief opening transition into the main part of your book. It actually does some very heavy lifting for your story in regards to plot, characters, and setting. It doesn’t matter when you want to start writing it. As long as it makes readers wanting to read more, then it has done its job perfectly.