Have you ever read anything in print (such as a book, magazine or newspaper) that begins with:
Hello, my name is…
This story is about…
In this essay, I'm going to talk about...
Neither have I.
Who writes like that? Nobody writes like that. The only place you ever see that sort of thing is in school, usually in the elementary grades (I hope); are children actually being taught to do this? I certainly hope not, because in the real world of writing, beginning a piece like that is just not acceptable, whether it's a story, an essay, or anything else.
Stories also don't need introductions, the way essays do. There's no need to preface a story with a paragraph like this:
My trip to California was one of the most exciting times in my life. During this trip, I learned a lot about myself, and it made me appreciate how much my family means to me. It was a trip I will never forget.
* Similarly, fiction stories don't need introductions either: Kyle's trip to California was one of the most exciting times in his life. During this trip, he learned a lot about himself, and it made him appreciate how much his family meant to him. It was a trip he would never forget.
So, how does a story begin? There's no single correct answer to this question, and there are numerous possibilities. Let's take a look at some of my stories, which are published on this website, and see how they begin. We'll look at the first sentence of each story, also called a "lead."
From Queens to Copake: Character/setting
Miguel had always thought it would be silent at six-thirty in the morning in the country.
This lead establishes the main character, the general setting and the specific time that the story begins. Note, though, that the setting is established indirectly, as a perception of the character. (See also: Establishing Setting)
Just the Times: Dialogue/action/character
"Just the Times," the man in the long beige trenchcoat said to the dark-skinned fellow behind the counter, adjusting the brown fedora that covered his thin, white hair.
This story begins with the character saying something, and then doing something, also providing some descriptive detail and hinting at the setting, which is established later.
Spring Concert: Setting/implied action
The New Guys always jumped when they heard that Howitzer go off for the first time.
Here we have a more general establishment of setting, using an implied action rather than a specific one to suggest a specific kind of place (in this case, a military academy).
Bush-League Finish: Action/setting
The 248 fans in the stands at San Antonio's Quentin Field made a feeble attempt at the wave as the hometown Slammers, the only team in the Class-B Rio Grande league with fewer than thirty wins on the season, hurried into the dugout after retiring Amarillo in the top of the ninth.
A somewhat long-winded lead with a great deal of information and detail, but it still uses actions (of both the fans and the players) to introduce and establish those facts.
Watch Me: Dialogue/setting
"Come on, you guys, there it is!" Adam called to his three friends zigzagging down the ski slope above.
As you can see, I really like to begin stories with lines of dialogue; it immediately draws the reader into the character's world. This time the line simply establishes the setting and leaves the reader wondering what the speaker is referring to, prompting him to read on.
Whitey: Nonfiction, noncommittal
He was the quintessential center fielder-leadoff hitter, with the Phillies in the 1950's, batting .308 with a .396 on-base percentage in a fifteen-year, Hall of Fame career.
OK, this one's a little more essay-like (note the verb-of-being "was"), but at least it shares some interesting information without giving away one key detail; obviously, the reader is meant to ask, "Who?" and keep reading to find out.
A Young Man's Game: Pretentious profundity
For some, this was where the dream began. For others, this was where it would end.
Novels are different from short stories in many ways, but the opening sentence can be just as important to the novelist. (Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times;" Melville: "Call me Ishmael.") This sort of thing was my attempt to take something simple, a football field, and turn it into something profound, something with much greater significance.
So what's the best way to begin a story? I don't think there is one. It's up to the writer to find a way to draw the reader's attention without giving too much away. Somehow I don't think "I'm going to write about…" does that.