There are no rules. You can start a story anyway you like. That said, there are some fairly common approaches to beginning a story and the opening episode of Offshore employs quite a few.
Offshore is a podcast about the unusual side of Hawaii. The first season focuses on the killing of Kollin Elderts, a Native Hawaiian, by Christopher Deedy, a white, off-duty federal agent. The podcast is produced and reported by Jessica Terrell (along with Ben Adair!) and Honolulu Civil Beat.
On this episode of HowSound, Jessica dissects the first several minutes of the first episode of Offshore and lays out all the different story-starting tricks they used. Here’s a quick summary:
Anecdote: Jump right in with a small story. Tell it as a sequence of events — this happened, then this happened, then this. . . Offshore utilizes this method very well by starting with the details of the shooting.
“Why is this important?” or “Why should I care?”: Here the narrator connects the story to a major historical event or a trend. One way Offshore accomplishes this is by linking the killing of Kollin Elderts to a trend — the shooting of people of color by white law enforcement.
The over-arching question: In order to focus a story, a reporter will often try to answer a single question with a story. Why not state that question openly? Offshore lays out several questions in the season opener including “How can we know when lethal force is appropriate, especially when race and poverty have so much to do with crime and punishment?” and “If Hawaii, one of the most diverse places on the planet is really struggling with this, what hope is there for the rest of America?”
This is unusual: This, too, is a frequently used opening. Tell the listener they’re going to hear something out-of-the-ordinary; that you’ll take them to a place few people go. Or that you’ll introduce listeners to a novel way of thinking about something. Offshore uses the “This is unusual” approach quite heavily by letting listeners know they’re going to hear about the hidden side of paradise.
Follow the journalist: It’s possible the first season of Serial owns the copyright to this approach. While Serial wasn’t the first to use it, the podcast certainly made extensive of use of it as listeners followed Sarah Koenig as she reported what she learned. Jessica uses this style on Offshore but to a lesser extent. As she says in this episode of HowSound, she’s reticent to use “I” when she reports, but she uses it lightly and to good effect by positioning herself as a bit of an outsider to the island. That allows her to be a surrogate for many, if not most, of her listeners.
Of course, there are lots of other ways to start stories. Two methods not discussed in this episode of Offshore are:
Character in a scene: In this instance, a piece opens with a character doing something, typically something related to the focus of the story. Zach Dyer used this approach in a story about “aid in dying” he recently produced at the Transom Story Workshop.
Here’s how things are. Here’s how they’re different than they appear: This is a classic. So many stories start this way. In the first part, the narrator describes things that are fairly mundane, normal. But then they make note of something different and unusual. In that moment, the narrator focuses a listener’s attention and, in doing so, lets them know what the story is about. Zach’s opening is an example of this trick, too. At first, the doctor is out for a run-of-the-mill walk with his dog. As he’s walking, he thinks about what he wants to do that day, items in the news. . . Pretty standard stuff. Then, Zach points to what’s different — the doctor also thinks about how he wants to die.
It’s true. Some of these approaches may be predictable — maybe even all of them — but if you’re having trouble coming up with an original beginning (and who doesn’t), these story-starting tricks might help you move past writer’s block.