An episode about how to begin a story, with guest authors Karen Bass, Kate Inglis, and Chris Jones. Featuring an original story, great first lines from classic fiction, and suggested writing exercises. PG.
Listen to the episode here or from your favourite streaming platform.
Read the full transcript of this episode:
Or try the Fright-Free version for young listeners (no spooky story):
[1:15] Story Intro
If a Labrador Retriever showed up on your porch barking, you’d think, “This dog is trying to tell me something.” You would never think, “This dog is trying to lure me to my death.”
[2:35] “The Barking Dog” by Manny
[12:20] Opening Stories you tell vs. write
A listener at the campfire doesn’t hear the first few lines, then say, ‘You know what? I’m actually going to go to that other campfire and check out that story.’ But a reader has a thousand other books to choose from. That’s why most advice on how to begin a story will tell you to plant a question in the reader’s mind. Here are some gripping first lines that plant questions.
[13:25] Excerpt from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
“‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”
[14:05] Excerpt from Feed by M.T. Anderson
We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.
[14:40] Excerpt from The Ritual by Adam Nevill
And on the second day things did not get better.
[15:20] Excerpt from The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
They murdered him.
[16:10] Copy the technique: Opening Lines
Write three opening lines: one in dialogue, like Charlotte’s Web; one that begins in media res, like The Ritual; and one that suggests an unusual setting, like Feed.
[17:35] Openings that introduce a narrator
You can open your story by directly introducing yourself to your reader, just as you might open any conversation.
Excerpt from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
Excerpt from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
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 how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Excerpt from Mosquitoland by David Arnold.
I am Mary Iris Malone, and I am not okay.
[18:30] Copy the technique: Introduce yourself
Write an opening that directly addresses the reader, acknowledging that they are about to read your story.
[19:15] Openings that make us care
One of my favourites is Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis. It begins:
It was Sunday after church and all my chores were done.
That’s not especially riveting. But if you can make me enjoy spending time with your characters, I’ll go a long way with them.
[20:05] Copy the technique: Engage the reader
If you’re not sure how to begin, just give us a glimpse of your main character, what makes them unique and likeable. Like a scene of your heroine babysitting for the first time and changing a diaper. If it makes us like her and laugh with her, we’ll follow her to the next scene.
[20:35] Interviews with Authors for kids and teens
[20:55] Karen Bass on beginning with action
[22:45] Kate Inglis on beginning with disorientation
[24:50] Chris Jones on beginning with problems
[26:50] Authors’ Advice for young writers on how to begin
[27:05] Chris Jones on beginning with emotion
[28:20] Kate Inglis on hopping around a book
[30:35] Karen Bass on setting a tone
[31:55] How my guests began to write and illustrate
[32:10] Kate Inglis on getting her 10,000 hours early
[33:50] Karen Bass on making a great late entrance
[35:05] Chris Jones on starting young and returning later
[43:20] Story Prompt: “Flowers in the Graveyard”
Today I was walking my dog when I saw this girl, maybe 18 or so, cut through the cemetery. She walked right up to a headstone and took the flowers that were resting against it….
[39:20] Scary Movie Quote
Try out various beginnings out on a trusted listener, like your mom. As a famous Hollywood character once said, “A boy’s best friend is his mother.”
[39:50] Thanks and coming up on the podcast
Next week I’ll talk with five more great Canadian authors about their beginnings: Frieda Wishinsky; Sarah Raughley; Don Cummer; David McArthur; and Wendy McLeod MacKnight.
Thanks for listening.
(The 80s music moment at 16:05 is from Yaz’s “In my Room.”)
Host: Catherine Austen writes books for children, short stories for adults, and reports for corporate clients. Visit her at www.catherineausten.com.
Art: The B&W image for this episode is from a wood engraving by Amédée Forestier from Wilkie Collin’s Blind Love, 1890.
Karen Bass loves writing action and adventure, and she likes to slide in some history when she can to make the past come alive for young readers. She has twice won the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction and has received numerous other nominations and accolades for her stories, including one being named as a USBBY Outstanding International Book.
Aside from finishing her degree in Victoria, BC, Karen lived most of her life in rural Alberta. When her husband retired, they decided to strike out on their own adventure, and now call southern Ontario home. Aside from writing, Karen works occasionally in a library, and so has a constantly growing pile of books waiting to be read. She loves having a whole new part of Canada to explore and use as inspiration for new stories. Find her online at www.karenbass.ca; on Facebook @karenbassYA on Twitter @karenbassYA and on Instagram @karenbassYA.
Kate Inglis is an award-winning author for adults and children. She writes about pirates and giants and mermaids and all the ways we love each other. Kate’s novels, non-fiction, and poetic picture books are infused with the salt, woodsmoke, and fresh air of the North Atlantic coast. Kate is also a photographer and a corporate writer. Find her online at www.kateinglis.com; on Instagram @kate_inglis, on Twitter @kate_inglis; and on Facebook @kateinglisbooks.
Chris Jones is an illustrator with a passion for visual storytelling. He illustrates for picture books, graphic novels, magazines and educational materials. Chris has illustrated over 20 books for young readers, including Scholastic’s Take Me Out to The Ice Rink, and This is The Rink Where Jack Plays. When not illustrating for clients, Chris spends his time writing and illustrating his own comic and picture book projects. Find Chris online at: www.mrjonesey.com; Instagram @mrjonesey; Twitter @mrJonesey