'Once upon a time' and other devices for starting your story

Think of your story as a journey that brings people in and takes them somewhere they’ve never been before. (Katie Wheeler / flickr)

Every story has to start somewhere. A question, a mystery, a unmarked but intriguing trail.

No matter how you decide to start, beginnings matter a lot. You can do great reporting and record amazing tape, but if the beginning of your story doesn’t grab listeners, they’re gone. In the case of audio stories, this includes the intro.

The following ideas are prompts for getting started, They are also structural frames for your entire story. Information unfolds naturally when you have a strong beginning and a sense of where you’re headed. So figuring out how to start your story can also mean figuring out its entire structure. And knowing what kind of “adventure” you’re taking the listener on can make the experience better for you and for the listener.

Pick your own adventure

  • Once upon a time: Transports listeners to a time and a place, signals a story about change.
  •  Isn’t that crazy?: Builds on natural curiosity by presenting surprising information. (Eric Whitney achieves a humorous version of this – in a story about patient records!)
  •  Cinematic/descriptive: The beginning of the story functions as a camera, swooping in to set the scene. You could use this approach if the setting is central to the story. (Sarah Jane Tribble zooms in from a “wide shot” in this story about the Amish and vaccines.)
  •  The mystery: Self-explanatory, my dear Watson! The goal of the story is ask a question and seek answers. (Often used by our Science Desk; case in point – The Mystery of the Slithering Rocks of Death Valley!)
  •  The illustrative character: One person’s story is used to interest the listener in a bigger idea (e.g. the child migrant crisis, the Iraq War, the mortgage crisis)
  •  The personal: The host/reporter begins on a personal note, explaining his/her interest or what they want to discover (NPR’s Jasmine Garsd builds her own “invisible boyfriend“)
  •  The quest/journey: Promises to take the listener somewhere. It could be a literal place or an idea. (NPR’s Hansi Lo Wang goes to Chinatown, on a “quest” to solve a dilemma about the Chinese New Year)

How do you decide where to start?

  • Consider what first interested you. Start with the thing that grabbed your attention. Let the story unfold as it unfolded for you. (Uri Berliner follows this advice to the letter here.)
  •  Remember your tape. If there was a moment that jumped out at you when you first heard it, especially if it spoke directly to your story, chances are it will jump out at the listener, too. (But make sure the tape works at the beginning of your story. If it requires a lot of set-up or context, it may be more appropriate later in the piece.)
  •  Think about setting. If place is key to your story, set the scene.
  •  Ask yourself what listeners need to know. What background will help your audience better understand the story? Start by explaining something. (This Nina Totenberg story about redistricting begins with a fabulous image – a “madman’s puzzle” – and gives us all the background we need to dive into a complicated court case.)
  • Think about personality. Introduce someone dynamic who will help you tell the story.
  • Revisit your angle/central question. What question is your story trying to answer? Start by posing it.
  • Identify the tension. What is unknown, misunderstood, or battled over? Frame your story by its conflict.

OK, you started your story. But does it work?

An editor, cubicle-mate or peer can help by considering these common problems.

  • The story is confusing. Go back and identify the point at which you got lost. And think like a listener: What did I need here that I didn’t get?
  • The story doesn’t know what it’s about. RED ALERT. Can you say – in one sentence – what the story is about? An unclear story often means the reporter (and editor!) haven’t thought enough about the one angle or question the piece intends to tackle.
  • The story is boring or doesn’t make the listener care. Ask why this story matters and what tape and writing can bring it to life. Or consider restructuring. Is there a personality, a thought-provoking question, a mystery the listener could latch on to?
  • There’s not enough texture. A big block of copy at the top can be a warning signal. Are there opportunities for sound or visual writing that the reporter/host is missing?
  • Too much information or too many numbers. Is the beginning beating you over the head with info or stats? (Like an average print piece!) Prioritize. What pieces of info must be known at the beginning? Which ones can unfold later? Which ones could be cut entirely?
  • You expect one thing and get another. Did the beginning of the story spend time on a person or issue that is not central to the story? This is “misdirection.” Always consider the expectations you’re planting in the listeners’ mind.

Alison MacAdam was a Senior Editorial Specialist with the NPR Training team, where she focused on audio storytelling. Prior to that, she edited All Things Considered.