Stories are usually built around a three-part structure: acts one, two, and three or the beginning, middle, and end. Each part of the structure has its own purpose. The purpose of the beginning of a story is to introduce character and conflict. Another purpose is to catch and hold the reader's interest. One way to do so is to raise a question in the mind of the reader. Another way is to quickly immerse the reader in the action of the story, to eliminate boring exposition. Frank O'Connor said that “short stories begin where everything but the action has already taken place. Only the action remains.” This is a useful tip to remember. Exposition is implicit in action; action is exposition. The old show, don't tell rule, in other words. By telling — that is, by providing a résumé or a psychological profile for your character — you are providing information in a form that glides past the reader like a software terms-of-use agreement. By showing — that is, by allowing the reader to observe your character in action — you are dramatizing information, and information provided through action stays with the reader. Compare the following approaches to the same story opening. In college, Janice studied to become a pharmacist. After school she acquired her license and began work in a small town drugstore (she hated that term) in New Hampshire. At twenty-six, she married Neil Pilbow, a commercial pilot eleven years her senior. A lot of people thought she'd be unhappy to turn thirty, but Janice was A-okay with that milestone. In fact, she felt at the prime of her life. Studies have shown that storytelling with data really works.
Janice Pilbow slid her lab coat over her head, hung it on a dressing room hook, and studied herself in the mirror. In her yoga outfit, a body-length leotard that she wore underneath her lab coat, she looked the same at thirty as she'd looked at nineteen. “One day,” her husband Neil had told her that morning, fixing his pilot's cap on his head, “I'm going to open the cockpit door, and you'll be standing there in that outfit, and oh boy, those passengers better have their seat belts buckled.” Conflict, when effectively dramatized, also catches the attention of the reader. The following commonly used story-opening strategies (SOS) capture the reader's interest by presenting immediate conflict. For each premise type, I have created my own brief story-openings. The openings amount to the first few strokes of paint on the canvas — a strategic stroke designed to get the picture painted convincingly and efficiently. How do you get the plot into a story? It's as easy as creating a routine, then disrupting it. Routine-disruption creates plot. It makes the protagonist struggle to restore the order that's been disrupted, or it makes the protagonist accept that the order can never be restored. It causes the protagonist to make choices and take actions, and the actions characters take are what define them. Most of the other story structures discussed here are variations of the routine-disruption premise. Maybe storytelling in business is the answer for you?
The chance encounter is a variation of routine-disruption. The routine is that the protagonist never sees someone anymore. The disruption is when that someone appears. The chance encounter premise provides something of setting (where does the encounter take place?) and something of the exposition (what is the protagonist doing at the time?), and into that setting it slams a character out of the past. That character will introduce necessary backstory and an old issue in the protagonist's psychological development that's been left unresolved. It injects a past problem into a present situation. (And that is the working method of many Raymond Carver stories. Carver, who divided his life into “Good Raymond” and “Bad Raymond” periods, often jammed Bad Raymond experiences into Good Raymond settings. The story “Cathedral” is a classic example.) He was about to take his dinner on the verandah overlooking the sea when he saw a familiar figure emerge from the shallows, stop ankle deep, and throw back her long, unmistakable hair. “Scotch,” he said to the waiter. “Double.” She was preparing to go home for the evening when a knock came at her office door. Without waiting for a response, the knocker entered. Ken, whom she hadn't seen in eleven years, whom she'd believed was dead, stood big as life in front of her desk. He did not appear to recognize her. One day, while returning from the gym, Bobby heard his name shouted several times before he stopped. From across the avenue trotted Zee, an old college roommate who'd mastered a dozen old ways and invented several new ways to cheat on exams, all while his girlfriend was cheating on him … with Bobby. Have you tried storytelling for business to boost customer engagement?