How to start a story is a pretty common question. It can also be a terrifying one when you’re staring at a blank page and a blinking cursor. A few weeks ago, I wrote specifically about how to not start a story (and we’ll review a few of those here), but now we need to talk about the right way to begin.
- Start where the story starts. I know that sounds glib, but it’s too often forgotten. When manuscripts come to me and the first chapter is labeled “prologue,” my heart sinks because what that usually means is that author feels a need to set up back story and tell us things he thinks we need to know. Thinks is the key word there. Find the moment of trouble for your character, the point at where life changes for them. That’s where the story starts, and that’s where you should begin writing it. Everything else is cruft, throat clearing.
- Pick an action moment. Stories that open with characters ruminating in their heads or delivering internal monologue are just dull. They don’t answer the most important question your audience is asking—what’s the trouble here, and why should I care? Instead, start with your character doing something, i.e., reacting to a life changing event, receiving bad news or jumping off a cliff, etc. If you pick an action moment, it’s hard to go wrong even if the trouble-moment (the inciting incident, the catalyst, whatever you want to call it) isn’t as clear as it should be. Caveat: don’t start with your character waking up, or an alarm clock blaring or getting ready for the day. That’s routine stuff. Find something out of the ordinary.
- Delay the back story. If it’s stuff we really need to know, we can know it after the story starts. In the beginning, give us just enough to know what’s happening, who it’s happening to and maybe where we are. Weave the other details in later. I want to emphasize this, because it’s the mistake I see novice writers make often. We do not need your character’s life story in the first few sentences, paragraphs or even pages. The beginning of your story should be about action, about doing, about trouble. Find the inciting incident and start the story there.
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