1. Alesia
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    Alesia Pen names: AJ Connor, Carey Connolly Contributor

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    Best way to start a first person past story?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Alesia, Oct 12, 2013.

    Where is the best place to start a story like this? I find it pretty easy to kick off in the middle of an action scene or whatever in my standard first/present narrative, but for some reason past tense is giving me a hangup. It seems too that alot of 1P/past narratives tend to start off somewhat boring: When I was a kid, we had a dog and the dog was brown and he was named rover and three paragraphs later we finally get into the story and wonder what the dog had to do with anything...

    Anyway, any good examples out there worth a read that might show me some better starting points?
     
  2. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    Helga Muller's "Hunger Angel" starts off with
    She introduces the narrator/main character through two simultaneous life situations: he is being shipped off by Soviet army to "who know where" and he discoveres his homosexuality - and, because he is ashamed of "rendezvous" with other men, he wants to escape, "to a camp, if need be". He and his mother pack his luggage: a detailed list follows, of things that he won't have any use of just a few pages later. Etc, etc..
     
  3. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't see that they need to be different at all. For that reason, I'd suggest a gimmicky scheme: Write the first page or two or six in your accustomed first person present and then just change it, phrase by phrase, to past tense. Then let it mellow for a day and see if you're happy with it when you come back.
     
  4. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    There is no "best way" but there are lots of wrong ways. A page of plain "telling" is a wrong way, but there are some clever openings.

    I like Burlbird's example, "All that I have I carry on me." "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," come immediately to mind.

    I suggest saving it until later. If the first few pages and the hook are so critical to a story, that suggests to me they need to come after the story is much more developed.
     
  5. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    all you need do is take a look at some of the best-ever first person novels, to see how it's done when done well...

    you can google for them, or go to your nearest library and the librarian will help you find them...
     
  6. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    There is no harm in taking it a bit slower, setting the mood, introducing a few elements before actually kicking the reader in the ribs with a rollercoaster of action - not all stories begin in medias res!

    Also, keep in mind that when writing in first person, regardless of the tense, you are not writing from your perspective, but from your character's perspective. There are slow characters and boring character and expressive voices and introspective voices, and the way he/she shapes the story tells more about him/her than what he/she actually does. In first person narration, the narrator is always somewhat unreliable, his story is always in some way questionable - his/her motives for telling the story, the choice of details and action he/she tells about, as well as those he/she chooses NOT to tell about - these are all important for defining the character.
     
  7. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Check out the openings in John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series. They're all in the first-person, and he was a master at it.

    EDIT: Another master, Rex Stout, in his Nero Wolfe mysteries.
     
  8. DanM
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    DanM Member

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    As close to the ending as possible :)

    Maybe try and think about the flashpoint of the story, the moment when the conflict begins - and don't start too much before that. All the backstory can be filled in later, when you have engaged the reader, when the want to know more about the characters.

    Another good hint I like for the opening of a story is to try and weave implicit question into the opening line. For example (in 1st person past): "The moment I walked in the door, I knew I'd made a mistake." Crappy example I know, but it already poses questions: what mistake had I made? Why did I realise I had made a mistake after I walked in the door? etc...

    Here's a nice article from Writer's Digest which has some other ideas as well: http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/write-first-chapter-get-started/10-ways-to-start-your-story-better
     
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  9. Alesia
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    Alesia Pen names: AJ Connor, Carey Connolly Contributor

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    @DanM that's exactly the kind of thing that popped into my head during my flight to CA. My MC opens by saying
    That I think would "hook" the reader into wanting to know more. Why does she regret taking that job, what job was it, and why was it so bad?
     
  10. DanM
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    DanM Member

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    @Alesia - that's exactly it! Just from that first line I want to know (at the very least) what was the job she shouldn't have taken.
     
  11. NigeTheHat
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    NigeTheHat Contributing Member Contributor

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    Weaving an implicit question to create the hook is a good idea - once your readers have started asking questions, they're going to want answers.

    The question doesn't have to be specific, though. One of my favourite first-person-past openings is from Iain Banks' The Crow Road:

    The question there is probably the best one any reader can be asking on the first line: ...what?
     
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  12. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    "Mother died today. Or was it yesterday? I'm not sure." - Albert Camus, The Stranger.
     
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  13. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    that's certainly one of the best-ever hooks, ed!
     
  14. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I always thought so. And yet, I didn't care for the novel. Existentialism was never really my thing.
     
  15. Fearless_leader
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    I think it should be important to remember that the "hook" doesn't neccesarily have to be only one sentence long. and even if it is it doesn't have to stop there.

    personally i think the first few paragraphs are just as important and a good one sentance "hook" doesn't guarantee a captivated audience.

    i dont think many people pick up a book, read the first sentence and then decide they don't like it.
     
  16. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    true... but being a 'hook' only means it will make you have to keep reading further... and, as in fishing, if what comes after the 'hook' doesn't keep you on the hook, then you've lost the readers despite having hooked them, just as a fish you can't keep on the hook will get away...

    so, you need not only a good first sentence hook, but a first few pages that'll not let the readers wriggle off and swim away...

    [btw, i hate having to use the fishing analogy, as i'm against cruelty to our fellow animals, but can't avoid it, given that it's the one everyone uses in re capturing the reader's interest]
     
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2013
  17. Darrell Standing
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    Darrell Standing Member

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    Don't start it with My name is...lol
     
  18. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Unless you begin with the main character at the podium in an AA or NA meeting.
     
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  19. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    Totally agree with this. I don't see why the POV and tense would affect the way to start the story at all, honestly. It's the same for every story, I think.
     
  20. mrieder79
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    mrieder79 Not a ground squirrel

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    Much of Christine by Steven King is written in first person. It is fantastic and it starts out very slow indeed. Fantastic story.
     
  21. Love P. Maya
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    Love P. Maya New Member

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    If your story is not particularly about the dog, starting your story that way would confuse your reader. You have to establish before you start writing what exactly is the theme of your story. If for example your story is about your biography, then you may start with some background information about your parents/parent: the setting (era, place); your birth place; siblings. Then, use an outline to assist you to decide what you are willing to share about yourself and your family in terms of the plot; and where you're going to end. I hope this helps.
    LM
     
  22. Fatback
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    Fatback Banned

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    I love the way Joseph Heller constructed Catch-22... While not an exclusive past tense story, he jumped from past to future to past to present to who knows where... Such an odd construct becomes a puzzle and adds a sense of depth most stories just can't provide.... The truly beautiful part of a past tense story is you can start anywhere...... View the freedom of choice for what it is and don't feel restrained by the possibilities. Present... Future... Past... Start where you like and weave the story together. Do you want to start off with a defined character and backtrack?... Or do you want to start with a blank slate and build the character? Ponderossa rules, I myself fancy banana pudding with my fried chicken... That's just me though
     

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