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  • Writer's pictureJohn Dempster

Good beginnings: a workshop with Cathy McSporran

Nine of us gathered on Zoom yesterday evening for a fascinating workshop led by Cathy McSporran. Her theme was Good Beginnings: how to hook your reader's attention from the very first sentence

She spoke of the necessity when writing fiction of arresting a potential reader from the very first lines of the work. The secret, she told us, is simple, one used by most writers: begin the story after the plot is up and running. Plunge into the action, start in the thick of it. As your text proceeds, you can use various devices such as flashback to bring your readers up to speed with what lay behind that initial dramatic moment.

Cathy quoted Dickens motto, emphasising the last phrase: ‘Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.’

We then examined the opening sentences of four pieces of writing:

Mortal Engines, a young adult novel by Philip Reeve (2001) Wide Blue Yonder, a story by Jenny Diski (1995) 1984 by George Orwell (1949) Lord of the flies by William Golding (1954)

We read these passages, and then discussed now effective they were in ‘hooking’ our attention, and the reasons for their effectiveness.

And then it was our turn. Cathy asked us to spend five minutes writing the first few lines of our own story on the theme ‘Someone is waiting in a hospital A&E’ We chatted about the possibilities: why was our main character in A&E? What do you see, hear, smell in an A&E? How will we describe our characters? What’s happening? Is there dialogue?

After we’d all finished, each of us read our opening lines. Cathy was wonderfully encouraging, and we chatted together about each piece of writing and how it ‘worked’ for us, and what might come next.

With a smallish number of folk present, it was a warm and intimate event, and everyone was happy to take part. The standard of writing was high, and the openings gripping! I particularly loved the one where the patient announced to the medic ‘I’m dead!’, and the story (based on the writer’s own experience) of the bride in full bridal attire attending A&E having broken her arm at the wedding!

It was a lovely evening, and we’re so grateful to Cathy for leading it so empathically.

Here’s what I wrote:

The door crashed open. A quick glance and I saw it was him, striding forward in the familiar grey joggers, Caley Thistle top and red slippers. I tried to focus on the handkerchief I was distractedly winding between my fingers. He sidled up, and sat down on the next chair, putting his face close to my ear. I gagged as his foetid breath fouled my nostrils. ‘I-told-you-never-to come here!’ he hissed.

I wonder what happens next!


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