Starting a Story

‘The wind whistled as it swept through the trees of the old forest, bringing with it the ice cold rain which fell as sheets, chilling anyone unfortunate enough to be caught out in it to the bone…’

How do you start a horror story? The above example is something I just made up on the spot and in all fairness I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. Some may say it is a little generic, maybe cliché but aren’t clichés there because it was something that worked and as such it was used more often? (Maybe they aren’t, don’t look at me for answers.) You have to start somewhere when you aim to write a story and I usually find the best place is to describe the setting, even before characters are introduced you need to know where they are or else you can only imagine whoever it is standing in a blank white space. But a setting is also important as it sets the mood of the scene. Now I usually write in short story form and as such I usually don’t get beyond the one scene, with only so many words there isn’t usually time for an epic tale spanning continents, and as such I have to try and set the mood with my opening paragraph as usually it is the best description you will get of my single scene. You want the reader to get a scene of the world of the story as soon as they start it, they need to get an idea of what may happen from the way the world is presented to them, that’s not to say that the gumdrop kingdom can’t have a grisly ritualistic murder and the haunted house could be home to a cute family of mice that can talk and dance and sew dresses, but for the most part it is hard to avoid tonal whiplash if you start a story one way and then everything that happens is contradictory to how the setting portrays the world.

Going back on myself again however that isn’t to say that you can’t start with a happy little village setting and then have things slowly develop into something horrifying. One of my favourite short stories ever is ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson which starts, innocently enough, with a village in the middle of June, preparing for an event that apparently happens yearly. Shirley Jackson writes as if the reader already knows the event and, by the name of the story alone, most readers would assume what the event is. However there is always a feeling in the story that something is not as expected in the story and when the story itself reaches its conclusion the reader will realise that it took a horrifying turn and yet they somehow realised that the story was never going anywhere good.

I admit that this is a style I myself have tried to emulate in a story of my own and if i may share a setting I wrote for a moment you will see that it is a fairly simple and unassuming opening, but that sure as hell isn’t the way it stays.

‘The sun was shining bright and hot in the cloudless sky, the birds tweeted happily and the village was a hive of activity. Men walked around with chests bare, carrying timber and hessian sacks full of wheat and other materials. The women washed their clothes and hung them out to dry. Laughing and calling back and forth to each other as they worked. Children were either busy with their chores or had finished for the morning and were running about playing tag and hide and seek and any other manner assorted games. The mood was one of happiness and joy, the winter storms had passed and the village was determined to enjoy the warmth of the spring for as long as they could.’

From that paragraph I would like to think no one would jump to the horror story conclusion, I could be wrong about all of this, but for the most part it isn’t the usual start to a horror setting. Like i said however, cliché isn’t bad, horrific things happen at night and they are often telegraphed well in advance and the reader is in that case, dragged inevitably towards the horror that awaits.

To wrap up another fairly short post I like to start my stories with a description of setting, it sets the mood, which can then be subtly changed if desired, and it gives your reader an idea of where the characters can fit in. I have no idea what I will write about next but I guess I might talk about other ways to start that I am less favourable towards, we shall see.

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