Improving Narrative Openings: an Explicit Teaching Approach
The question every writer – child or adult – must ask themselves when starting a narrative is, ‘How will my story begin in a way which makes the reader wish to read on?’If pupils are to progress beyond, ‘Once upon a time’ and ‘Long, long ago…’ then we can help by providing them with a broad menu of suggestions for alternative openings.
The opening sentence or paragraph needs to be considered before discussing the introduction of characters and the use of effective locational writing. Young writers can benefit a great deal from being introduced to the power of the ‘attention-grabber’ – the opening which surprises the reader into wanting to continue.
One method of improving openings is to analyse those of other writers. The teacher collects a range of attention-grabbing openings which are presented to the pupils and discussed in relation to the following three questions –
- What makes the opening effective?
- Why does it catch your attention?
- Does it make you want to read more and if so, why?
Once a debate begins regarding narrative openings a range of methods which the pupils can apply/experiment with should be introduced. The suggested range are not intended as a ‘fixed’ menu; rather, pupils should be encouraged to break the rules and to invent their own opening strategies. This cannot be achieved, however, without first having some idea of a breadth of opening strategies.
In medias res
In medias res – literally meaning ‘In the middle of things’, is a useful way of transporting the reader directly into the heart of the action without the need for a preamble and as such it creates both excitement and tension from the very start.
To begin with discuss 3 or more examples of ‘In medias res’ openings i.e.
a. Suddenly the scream pierced the night. I leapt to my feet. I stood totally motionless. All was silent….and then it came again, only this time closer to us.
b.And then the explosion ended the life I had once held with such little regard. I felt soil and mud raining down on me and when the noise and movement ceased I found that I was partly buried and could barely move myself.
c. I dropped the contained marked ‘Dangerous. Handle with care’ and the world seemed to slow down. I could swear that minutes passed between it leaving my fingers and crashing to the ground with such terrible consequences.
When studying the first example, draw the pupils’ attention to the adverb ‘suddenly’. When used at the very start of a story this simple word instantly creates an ‘in medias res’ effect. It is also worth exploring the use of short staccato sentences. Asking pupils to use sentences of, no more than, seven words throughout the first paragraph will help to build an atmosphere of tension.
In example (b) the story opens with a connective. This device can easily be taught but the reason for using a connective at the beginning of a sentence should be absolutely clear: quite simply it is because it is stressed. If we were to say the sentence aloud we would accent the word ‘And’ making it ‘stand out’. This gives greater weight to the incident which occurs next.
In example ( c) it is what happens that matters. A method of teaching this is to brainstorm sentences beginning with the first person pronoun ‘I’ in which something terrible happens. The ‘terrible thing’ must have long-lasting consequences!
It is best to model a couple of examples first so that pupils begin to internalise the method:
I tripped and felt myself rolling toward the cliff’s edge.
I drank the contents of the bottle and then realised what a terrible mistake I had made.
A second technique which grabs the attention of the reader is the utilisation of a contradiction in the opening sentence e.g.
Some days I loved Anne, but on others I hated her.
I felt cold as ice but then my skin grew as hot as fire
The advantage of this kind of opening is that it usually ‘suggests’ a storyline. Pupils can be encouraged to consider story plot after producing more of these ‘contradictions’. Questions such as ‘Why did he feel like this?’ and ‘What made this happen?’ encourage the development of a storyline based on the initial sentence.
Unexpected / Surreal openings
In advertising the power of a surreal image has long been understood. It can be used to great effect in the opening of a story –
I dragged myself up the face of the clock and then sat on the second hand wondering what to do.
I didn’t know that I could breathe underwater until I fell into the deep end and found myself sitting happily on the bottom!
When running writing workshops with Key Stage 2 pupils I tend to model two or three examples like the one above. I then ask the pupils to produce a sentence/ sentences which will surprise everyone. This approach of modelling followed by pupil experimentation is a powerful way of introducing new approaches to narrative.
Direct address to the reader
A method of opening a narrative, which creates an empathic response from the reader is the ‘Direct address’ method. Again, it is best taught by example followed by discussion,
Have you ever wondered what it might be like to fall from a plane and not have your parachute open? Let me describe it for you!
By combining a direct address and a question in the opening sentence we amplify the empathic response.
Series of questions
An extension of the previous example, this approach creates a highly dramatic effect. The reader wants to know what the answer is and the mystery this creates draws them into the story. The technique is used to great effect by Emile Zola in the short story ‘The Girl Who Loves Me’. This story opens with 5 paragraphs, each of which begins with the phrase ‘Is the girl who loves me…?’Immediately after these 5 paragraphs, with which Zola has ‘hooked’ the reader, he begins the story proper with the sentence, ‘Yesterday I went in search of her in a fairground.’
This effective opening method is straightforward to teach. It is possible to build from a single question – George Eliot begins the Prelude to ‘Middlemarch’ in such a manner – with equally effective results!
A technique more familiar than the preceding five is the utilisation of dialogue as an opening device. It is, however, best if we link the dialogue to a ‘dramatic moment’. To teach this I use a modelled example of how the ‘Cinderella’ story could begin if this device was used to open it:
‘Midnight already’ he said. At first I didn’t stop dancing but then it dawned upon me…
‘I have to leave’, I cried. It was already the fourth stoke of the clock.
‘But why?’ he asked. He wore a perplexed expression.
‘I can’t tell you, but I must.’
The seventh stroke chimed out. I had no choice but to run as fast as my legs would carry me, but as I reached the top of the steps I could see that my glorious coach was once more a pumpkin!