Updated: Jan 26, 2022
Rellie was walking home from school when an old man came up to her and asked her where the nearest hospital was.
“Go down this street, then turn right, then…” Rellie started, but the old man cut her off.
“Okay, good, then.” He told her, pulling out a knife from his coat pocket.
“What…are you going to…” she started to say, then an instinct forced her to turn and run.
He ran after her, keeping a close pace. She was terrified as she fled, then she saw some people up ahead. She stopped running and screamed, a panic rising in her so terrible that she felt like passing out.
Then the people took out guns and pointed them at her head.
Rellie woke up from the terrible nightmare and lay in bed, her heart beating at a quick pace. She felt warm and sweaty. She checked the clock. 2 am.
Rellie got up and went into the bathroom adjacent to her room. She splashed cold water on her face and felt better.
“Please…she prayed to no one, “Please, no more nightmares, please…”
Okay, that’s what I wrote when I was 15. Here’s what I would say to my teen self now:
Rellie was walking home from school when an old man came up to her and asked her where the nearest hospital was. This is an award-winning sentence—for a contest about the world’s worst story beginnings. Why? (As if it’s not obvious.) First off, it’s dullsville. Rellie was walking home from school…already I’m ready to stop reading. Who cares about Rellie and her walking down a street? Second, we know nothing about setting. Is this a busy city street? Is she roaming down a country road? Third, a man asks her where the hospital is but the reader wants to know, who is this dude? What does he look like? How does he approach her? Is Rellie nervous? Alarmed? Used to strangers approaching her with odd questions? Fourth, dialogue would improve this transaction. It would bring us into the story instead of making us feel like outsiders. I would like to add that making the story have a first person narration using present tense might do wonders for creating a bond between the narrator and the reader.
“Go down this street, then turn right, then…” Rellie started, but the old man cut her off. Um…wouldn’t she use street names? Unless, of course, it’s out in the country and there are no street names. But it’s sounding somewhat city to me, a man showing up asking for the nearest hospital. Also, note the ever-popular reaction before action mistake. Rellie stops talking and I tell the reader that the man cuts her off. Why not have him break in with his dialogue instead? Not only does it show him cutting off her sentence, it’s much stronger than my announcing he’s about to speak.
“Okay, good, then.” He told her, pulling out a knife from his coat pocket. Talk about a banal phrase. Pulling out a knife…yawn. Tell me when he’s done pulling it out, okay? Here we have a possible risk to Rellie’s life, and that’s the only way I’m going to describe it? Plus, what’s with his, “Okay, good, then.” Not only is it strange, it makes no sense. What’s good?
“What…are you going to…” she started to say, then an instinct forced her to turn and run. She started to say? Um…she’s saying it. Another common newbie error. And what’s with this instinct crap? Come on, forget the psychological babble, get the girl outta there, pronto!
He ran after her, keeping a close pace. She was terrified as she fled, then she saw some people up ahead. She stopped running and screamed, a panic rising in her so terrible that she felt like passing out. Telling of the boring kind. She was terrified. She felt like passing out. Wow, my heart is racing reading that. At this point I hope he sticks the blade in her to end my misery.
Then the people took out guns and pointed them at her head. ZZZZZZ…What? Huh? Oh, I must’ve been asleep. Sorry about that. Oh, now I know why. More telling me what is happening and nothing really eventful happening. Guns pointed at her head? Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Maybe if I knew how frightened she felt I might care. That is, if I liked her to begin with, but since I know nothing about her…ZZZZZZZ.
Rellie woke up from the terrible nightmare and lay in bed, Yeah? Me too. The nightmare of having to get through these few paragraphs. her heart beating at a quick pace. Understated. She felt warm and sweaty. She checked the clock. 2 am.
Rellie got up and went into the bathroom adjacent to her room. She splashed cold water on her face and felt better. Splashes cold water and feels instantly better? Remind me to do that after screaming at my kids for running into a busy parking lot. I had no idea of water’s magical properties.
“Please…she prayed to no one, “Please, no more nightmares, please…”
Okay, all kidding aside, here is what I’d write to make this stronger. But remember, I’ve been to conferences where editors have advised against beginning a story with a dream. It’s common and usually ineffective, and all too often used as a devise to capture a reader’s attention when another way may serve the story better. But this is simply a writing exercise, not a story I plan to publish, so for now I will allow it. What I will do, however, is make it obvious to my audience that this is a dream, thus cutting out the possibility of a letdown.
There was no moon, yet tree leaves shimmered with moonlight, and dappled shadows lay across a dirt road. I already knew where I was. I’d been here so many times, caught between dream and reality.
I glanced to my right. There was the red barn, door hanging open. To my left, the cornfield, a non-existent wind blowing against the stalks. They swayed and rippled, sounded like the beating of a thousand bird wings flapping.
Maybe this time would be different. Maybe this time I could get to the end of the road. If I ran fast enough.
Last time, my legs wouldn’t work, but somehow I knew today would be different. I was right. I took off like a greyhound, pretending I was running on the track. Racing in the 100 meter. Winning, this time.
My foot caught a wagon rut in the road. I saw it immediately before I stumbled into it. Pitched forward. Slammed my elbow into the hardened mud. I lay there for a moment, angry tears rising to my eyes. That rut hadn’t been there seconds ago. It wasn’t fair!
“Excuse me,” a voice said, and my blood froze. It was him. The homeless guy with a limp.
I looked up into his hardened face, the blue veins trailing around his balding head like poisonous snakes. He leaned in and whispered, “Where is the hospital? I need the hospital.” He held up his bloody stump of an arm, and I screamed.
Stupid! I was so stupid! And I knew better.
People flowed from the corn stalks, a river of zombies. I’d called them when I screamed.
I jumped to my feet, but it was too late. Too late. Always too late. They streamed from the barn. Swallowed the sky. Millions of people with empty sockets for eyes. Hair torn from scalps. Smelling like decay. Like rot. Something dead.
“Wake up!” I yelled. “Wake up!”
And I did.
My bedroom was silent save for the drips from my bathroom sink in the adjacent room. A soothing sound. That’s why I made sure to not shut the faucet off all the way. When I heard it, I knew I was safe. I was home in my bed, not in the country, but in Host, New York. Busy suburb where if I screamed, my neighbors would hear and call the police. My mother would come running.
There were no cornfields here. No barns. No zombies.
Just me, my bed, and the shadows of everything I loved.
Sorry, 15-year -old self. I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. Though I have to say, I’m curious to know where this story is headed. A girl plagued by nightmares. I know, I gave my Rellie zombie nightmares. Since I’m not sure where you’re going with this, it may not work. But I like it much better now, don’t you? (I’m guessing my 15-year-old self would sulk.)