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March 26, 2010 / Chersti Nieveen

analysis: starting your story in the right place

Lowry, Lois. The Giver. New York: Random House, 1993.

Warning: This analysis may contain spoilers. I take an in-depth look at what makes this book work and why. And it may only be helpful if you’ve actually read the book. However, continue reading at your own risk. For more information on the Friday Analysis, go here.

THE GIVER by Lois Lowry

For a synopsis, click here.

For this book I’d love to talk about STARTING YOUR STORY IN THE RIGHT PLACE.

It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. No. Wrong word, Jonas thought. Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen. Frightened was the way he had felt a year ago when an unidentified aircraft had overflown the community twice. He had seen it both times. Squinting toward the sky, he had seen the sleek het, almost a blur at its high speed, go past, and a second later, heard the blast of sound that followed. Then one more time, a moment later, from the opposite direction, the same plane.

The first chapter is a great example of a strong start. The author continues to elaborate on the mystery of the airplane. This story helps round out her protagonist and setup the world. The reaction to the airplane gives even more insights. The people all stop like children to stare at it, then a voice comes on the speaker and tells them all to go inside. And like children, they all obey.

In just a few pages, the story takes a sharper turn.

“Needless to say, he will be released.”

We don’t quite know what “released” means at this point, but we do know it isn’t good.

What works:

This book starts in the right place.

Why it works:

It sets up the story in an intriguing way, and lets the reader get a feel of the world and characters. It provides enough questions to keep us reading. This story doesn’t start directly when the change occurs at Jonas’s age ceremony; and if it did, the reader wouldn’t understand the world as well, or why the change is so important.

Hard Rule:

  • Start in the right place – near the inciting action (the point where you introduce the major conflict of the play). The inciting action is the thing that kicks the story into motion. Don’t take 30 pages to get the story started – if you have, then you haven’t started in the right spot.
  • Catch your reader’s attention in the first few paragraphs – you may not be given a second chance.
  • Give tidbits of the world, but don’t give an info dump.
  • Let us understand the character. Weave their personality throughout the narration and let us understand them better through their actions.
  • Introduce elements of the story that will leave the reader with questions.

Bring it home:

Write three different beginnings for your story? Which one works best?

Now pick up ten random books at the library (in the section you are writing for) and decide if the beginning is good. Does it catch your attention? Does it make you wonder?

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6 Comments

  1. mary / Mar 26 2010 8:51 am

    Great insights. Knowing where to start your story isn’t easy. I’ve critiqued a lot of peoples work recently and not one of them started the story in the right place. The Giver is one of my favorite books – I actually like Gathering Blue better though.

    • Chersti Nieveen / Mar 26 2010 7:30 pm

      I loved Gathering Blue so much! And yes, starting the story isn’t easy. I know so many writers who have had to keep revising just the first few chapters until they finally find the perfect place to start.

  2. Karen Krueger / Mar 26 2010 8:57 pm

    Yeah, umm, I think I’ve restarted mine about ten times. I think I’ve finally started in the right place. I’m close at least…very close.

  3. David Horan / Apr 4 2010 12:56 pm

    I am currently reading this book as a read aloud to my fourth grade students. I also love being able to tie things we are reading into their writing and a great beginning is one of the great things this amazing book has.

    • Chersti Nieveen / Apr 5 2010 8:10 am

      I had my 5th grade teacher read it out loud to my class ages ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since.

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