Setting Up the Story
World building in the first paragraph
Many authors begin with dialogue or story problems too quickly, and the reader gets lost, not having been grounded in the story first. Check out this first paragraph from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins from Scholastic Press, 2008:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
What does this beginning tell us?
- They are not rich—For this character to be sharing a bed with a sibling, they are probably scraping by in this society.
- This is not today—Rough canvas mattress cover tells me that this is not present day America. It is either very long ago or set in a post-apocalyptic future (or a different world altogether).
- This is not a safe place—Wherever this is, it’s a scary, unstable world for this character’s sibling to be having recurring nightmares.
- The family dynamic is flawed—Dad is either dead or out of the picture because the sibling climbed in with “our mother” not our parents. Another sign of the great instability.
- We’re not in Kansas anymore—The day of the reaping sounds horrible when referred to as the cause for the child’s nightmares. Reaping is defined as “to harvest the crop” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). The only crops that could induce nightmares would be human or animal, because not too many people get scared of picking apples. This also let’s me know we’re not in the past because the day of the reaping doesn’t exist.
The world is already clearly established in the first paragraph. Not completely, but enough for me to follow. I know where I am, and that’s so important for your reader.
Take a book you love and rewrite the first paragraph. Then, break it down into bullet points of the world building elements that the author has included, like I did with the Hunger Games. Next, write the first paragraph to start a story of your own. Be sure to include several story building elements which tell the reader the time and place and rules of your story world. Break it down into bullet points once completed.