Why does your imagination spring to attention when you hear a phrase such as: Once upon a time in a far-off land . . . ?
It doesn’t say much, except: I’m ready to tell a good story.
And it asks, implicitly: Would you like to hear it?
Who can resist such a hook dangled before the imagination? When such a question is put directly to a listener or reader – an outright invitation to hear (or read) the story that follows – it’s not common that the person will answer: No thanks.
That person (who may be an editor or a literary agent) is more likely to succumb to that universally deep-seated urge to want to slide under the nearest feather comforter and plead: “Yes. Tell me a story. Please!”
Of course, how long they keep reading is a different matter! But your first challenge is to get them to start reading . . . and in a positive frame of mind.
Consider how a good number of great classic tales start with a compelling hook that is really little more than a clear signal that a good yarn is coming.
A most extraordinary thing happened in Petersburg on the twenty-fifth of March.
– beginning of “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol
Or . . .
This is the tale of the wonders that befell on the evening of the eleventh of December, when they did what they were told not to do.
– beginning of “The Ice Dragon, or Do as You Are Told,” by E. Nesbit
Why do these work? Because they invite us in to the magic circle of the story.
Even more active story starts are really often little more than an invitation to the reader to get ready for a good tale. For instance, consider the beginning line to Charlotte’s Web.
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
Many would claim that’s a case of in media res, a Latin phrase that just means starting a story in the middle of action. Yes, but consider how that start by E.B. White is also an implicit beginning to a story. The opening line is proposed in a way so that, if the teller paused, the listener would say, “Tell me more.” The action underway is significant, and has been summed up in a sentence; it calls for the rest of the explanation of what this story is about to come immediately.
Indeed, it’s basically a story that starts, “Once upon a time a girl named Fern Arable was looking out the window and saw her father headed to the hoghouse with an ax. Why? Well, listen and I’ll tell you why.”
It’s not only children’s book that can start this way. Consider the start to Patrick Rothfuss’ New York Times–bestseller, The Name of the Wind.
It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.
This is the literary equivalent of “Once upon a time at the Waystone Inn . . .” Or “It was a dark and stormy night” . . . except there’s no storm, just darkness and quiet.
Every story need not start with a traditional call to story. But I’m surprised that more writers don’t make use of its effective power to make us look forward to what comes next.
(For more on writing a great piece of fiction, see the book How To Write Your Best Story.)