Story Openings: Should We Start With Showing or Telling?

By Stacy Melanie Jerger (@ApoideaEdits)

How do we start a story that’s been consuming us for weeks, maybe even months? Do we begin describing some backstory to give readers immediate context or do we throw readers directly in the middle of an action-packed moment?

Sometimes we don’t think too hard about how to frame the first few moments and we follow the natural flow of our writerly instinct.

No matter how we start, we know later on that the first chapter is going to be revised and tweaked and nudged the most until we think it’s just right.

In my last blog post I talked about showing vs. telling, why writers need both in their stories, and how to improve our writing craft by striking a balance between the two methods.

I had outlined the uses for each method throughout our stories:

  • Showing – Action. Dialogue. Reactions. Scenes that we want spotlighted or to have big emotional impact.
  • Telling – Transitions. Summaries. Descriptions. Backstory. Less important information that isn’t worthy of the spotlight but readers still need to know.

But when it comes to starting our story, sometimes we lean more toward one method or the other. Here’s some published examples of authors using showing or telling to start their stories.

Showing

From The Next Best Thing by Kristan Higgins:

“YOU HAVE A WHISKER.”

Though I hear the loudly whispered comment, it doesn’t quite register, as I am rapt with adoration, staring at the wonder that is my hour-old niece. Her face still glows red from the effort of being born, her dark blue eyes are as wide and calm as a tortoise’s. I probably shouldn’t tell my sister that her baby reminds me of a reptile. Well. The baby is astonishingly beautiful. Miraculous.

“She’s amazing,” I murmur. Corinne beams, then shifts the baby the slightest bit away from me. “Can I hold her, Cory?” My two aunts mutter darkly—only Mom has held the baby so far, and clearly, I’m breaking rank.

My sister hesitates. “Um…well…”

“Let her, Cory,” Chris encourages, and my sister reluctantly hands over the little bundle.

She’s warm and precious, and my eyes fill with tears. “Hi there,” I whisper. “I’m your auntie.” I can’t believe how much I love this baby…she’s fifty-five minutes old, and I’m ready to throw myself in front of a bus for her, should the need arise.

“Pssst. Lucy.” It’s Iris’s voice again. “Lucy. You have a whisker.” My seventy-six-year-old aunt taps her upper lip. “Right there. Plus, you’re holding her wrong. Give her to me.” 

Higgins dumps us directly into an action scene packed with dialogue and movement. We can see what’s happening like we’re right in the room with the characters.

We hardly know anything about the protagonist, but we're engaged--whether we adore newborn babies or sympathize with an unwanted whisker. This is an “act first, explain later” method that grabs readers’ attention instantly, without confusing them until we can explain.

From Going Under (The Oracles of St. Ambrose) by Jennifer Barry:

Deep breath.

In. Out.

In. Out.

The starting shot. Energy traveled from the center of my body to the tips of my toes, and a split second later, I flew.

Just before I cut through the water headfirst, clouds of red filled the pool. Veins turned to ice and froze muscles and joints. My face slapped the surface, followed by my chest and stomach. I struggled to draw a breath, but pulled in only water. Panicked, trying to make sense of what I’d seen —blood, choking, blood, pain— I flailed and struggled to get a grip.

I slowly treaded and looked for the red that had appeared before the most embarrassing belly flop I’d experienced since the age of three.

Nothing.

Barry toes the line with this terrifying opening moment—painting in details without giving away too much information. She’s relying on our curiosity to keep us reading and find out why this is happening—as it turns out, the protagonist also wants to know why this is happening. So immediately we’re on the same side as our protagonist.

This showing method also allows us to get really close. Barry orchestrates our reading experience by zooming in on details before panning out to the bigger picture that will orient us and fill in some blanks.

Telling

From Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.

Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

I love using this example because of how popular the series is. Rowling opens her story with a boatload of telling, so why does it work?

It’s backstory, but the information is brief and relevant to the plot. When introducing the Dursleys, it’s not just a list of description. Descriptions are being applied to characters to paint a lifestyle. Mrs. Dursley’s long neck is good at craning to spy on neighbors. The opening also establishes the mood with “thank you very much.”

If we want to use telling to open a story, those words have to work twice as hard for us and our readers, adding relevant description and folding in attitude or mood.

From Ember by Bettie Sharpe:

I know you think you’ve heard this story before, but you’re wrong. Some would have it that this story begins with a virtuous virgin, a young woman of honesty and integrity sucker punched by cruel fortune and forced to sleep among the cinders while her moral inferiors lived the life which was meant to be hers. Bullshit.

This is no fairy tale. The real story doesn’t even start with me; it starts with the prince. The tales have him faceless and nameless, a passionless plywood man meant to represent everything a good girl is supposed to want. Nothing could be further from the truth.

His given name was Adrian Juste, but after the witch Gaetane bestowed her double-edged blessing on his naming day, none called him aught but Charming.

I love this example because of what Sharpe’s telling is doing for us. She’s establishing a mood and also a direct connection to readers. She’s talking to us much like a friend sitting down and telling us about her day. It’s conversational and it’s giving us important backstory without putting us to sleep.

And look at the way she framed her opening. “But you’re wrong.” Nobody wants to feel like they’re wrong about something, but Sharpe is challenging readers. She wants to prove to us that this is no ordinary fairytale that’s been chewed up and spit out. She’s challenging us to love her story—and it works because we want to love what we’re reading.