How to begin a story

If you’re telling a tale — a novel, a movie, or a short story — where do you start? The opening needs to make the reader, viewer, or listener want to keep going.

Often stories start with action or dialogue, especially in movies and television, although written fiction has more options. You can use questions to appeal to curiosity. A character, setting, or problem can introduce and reveal the world.  It’s also possible to cast a spell on the reader, viewer, or listener through intense emotions.

This is the opening paragraph to Prodigies by Angélica Gorodischer, a book that I translated for Small Beer Press. It’s been described as an “enchanting novel of the women whose lives pass through a nineteenth century boarding house. Moving, subtle, and dreamlike.” Its first words set the tone: slow, strange, and compelling.


On the day Madame Nashiru arrived at the boarding house on Scheller Street, a brief tremor passed through the house, unnoticed by everyone except Katja. The foundations of the world did not shudder, plagues did not break out, first-born did not die, there were no catastrophes, the waters of the Genil River did not inundate a dozen towns, black death did not arrive at Addis Ababa, the sorcerers of Yauyuos did not dream about dogs with human heads, the walls of Nerja Cave did not crack, ships did not sink in the inlets of Baffin, volcanoes did not erupt, islands did not disappear, orchards did not suffer drought, the lintels of old cathedrals did not become besooted, cemetery guards did not worry needlessly, nor did police officers or transportation inspectors or sergeants or jailors or tax collectors or judges or executioners; but the house shook, and Katja, who was in the courtyard bending over a tin-plate pan, looked at the water and told herself that there are beings with wings and yet they hide them. She did not know what she meant by that, but she was used to those sudden obscure thoughts, so she was not frightened and did not stop what she was doing to stand still and think about what it might be, what it might mean, why she had thought it, if it was a memory, something she had heard in passing, whatever it was. She already knew how, silently and unsurprised, to tell herself things that seemed meant for someone else and perhaps they were, whose meaning escaped her like a fairy, like a fearful little animal that might also have wings, hidden or not, with hardened forewings that enclosed tender, weak hindwings that the wind, even the wind could rip. She let them escape, it’s okay, you can go, I won’t stop you, the afternoon is too beautiful, close your eyes at night and may nothing foul from mirrors or from far away trouble your mind, and don’t think about it in the morning. There are beings who have wings and yet they hide them. In the pan, the water rippled as if from a puff of wind, and Katja waited; waited, rag in hand to clean the windowpanes, until they calmed. I’m not going to put a rag there – she had created and understood that thought. I’m not going to put a rag there into the winged beings between the drops in the water. She waited while Madame Helena welcomed Madame Nashiru, and the house felt suspicious, but only Katja noticed.

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