How to Find the Start of Our Story

by Jami Gold on September 3, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Plant sprouting with text: Finding the Start of Our Story

A lot goes into deciding how to begin our story. We have to introduce the characters, the story, and the setting. We have to make it interesting, not confusing, or not accidentally misleading. Etc., etc., etc.

If we think about it too much, we might seize up and not write anything. The sight of that blank page can paralyze writers, preventing them from making it past the first line or the first page. It’s easy to want a story opening to feel perfect before we move on.

Most writers have probably struggled with some element of a story’s beginning. With my current work-in-progress (WIP), I debated between several potential openings before I typed a word. In another story, I knew the opening scene, but not how to tie it into the rest of the story. In yet another story, I knew everything about the first page, but I kept emphasizing the wrong elements.

Er, yeah, I think it’s safe to say that story beginnings can be tricky. *smile* As I recently had to figure out solutions to all those problems, now seems like a good time to share some tips.

The Three Aspects of Story Beginnings

A great story beginning will work on three different levels. Think of them as the big picture, the medium picture, and the close-up picture.

  • Big Picture: Where Our Story Should Start

Start on the right note. In my WIP where I debated between several possibilities for a beginning scene, I finally decided based on the big picture. Which scene led best into the story’s main conflict? Which scene best showed the character in the situation that would kick off the right emotional arc and theme?

  • Medium Picture: When Our Story Should Start

The first notes should flow to the next. In my story where I had a strong idea about the opening scene but wasn’t sure how to tie that to the rest of the story, I had to fill in the blanks. How could I get from Point A (the opening image) to Point B (the Inciting Incident that kicked off the story)? Often this means trying to move Point A as close to Point B as possible, starting just before something happens to the protagonist that forces a change or decision.

  • Close-Up Picture: How Our Story Should Start

Avoid off notes. In my story where I knew everything about that opening scene but kept emphasizing the wrong elements, I had to get the draft close and then fix in revisions. By the time I finished drafting the story, I knew the right tone and thematic messages to emphasize. Then feedback about character likability and reader interest helped tweak the details.

The best story opening will likely succeed on all three levels. We can move from the big picture down to the specifics as we work on our story. Believe it or not, that means we could find the best beginning for our story in just three steps.

Today, another prize winner from my Blogiversary contest, ChemistKen, chose to have me over to his blog for a guest post, where I’m sharing tips on using these three aspects to find the right beginning of our story. Visit my guest post at Ken’s blog and learn more about using the three steps to find our story’s beginning!

Registration is currently open for my workshop on how to do just enough story development to write faster, while not giving our pantsing muse hives. Interested? Sign up for “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.” (Blog readers: Use Promo Code “savethepants” to save $15 on registration.)

Do you struggle with story beginnings? Have you looked at story beginnings on these three levels before? Do you think that perspective can help us find story openings that work better? Does one aspect come more naturally to you than others? Or have you struggled with all of them?

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16 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Maryanne Fantalis September 3, 2013 at 5:55 am

Beginnings are definitely the hardest thing for me, and since they are what agents and readers look at first, I agonize (and panic) over them. I rewrite and rewrite to the point that I have no idea after a while if they’re any good. I like your approach and I’ll give it some thought. Thanks, as always.

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Jami Gold September 3, 2013 at 9:29 am

Hi Maryanne,

Oh I know what you mean! I think that’s what happened to me with that one story that I kept emphasizing the wrong things. It’s not that I was trying to emphasize the wrong things. :) But it’s so easy to focus on one aspect and lose sight of the rest.

Like I mentioned in the guest post at Ken’s, worst comes to worst, we can use this “big picture to close-up” method for revisiting our goals when we revise. (Note to self: Remember that.) :) Thanks for the comment!

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chemistken September 3, 2013 at 6:12 am

Thanks again for posting over at my website, Jami. Beginnings can make or break a book.

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Jami Gold September 3, 2013 at 9:43 am

Hi ChemistKen,

Thanks for picking that option for your Blogiversary prize! :)

And yes, you’re right–without a good beginning agents, editors, and readers won’t discover our book. Thanks for the comment!

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Buffy Armstrong September 3, 2013 at 11:46 am

The opening of a book is the hardest thing for me to nail. I think for my current WIP I’ve had at least 10 different opening scenes. 10! Finally, I feel like I’m in the right place.

It’s a balancing act. You can’t start too soon or too late in a book. (Duh!) And I believe you can’t even begin to evaluate your beginning until you finished a whole draft.

Years ago I used get in such a tizzy about the first five pages that I never finished anything. Now I just start. I can cut and revise later.

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Jami Gold September 3, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Hi Buffy,

“I used get in such a tizzy about the first five pages that I never finished anything. Now I just start. I can cut and revise later.”

So true! Nothing we type in our stories is permanent until we want it to be. :) Good luck with your beginning and thanks for the comment!

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Carradee September 3, 2013 at 11:49 am

I usually wing beginnings. I spent some years starting stories and ditching them, so I have more practice and am more comfortable with beginnings. Endings? Not so much.

But there’s one story I keep starting and ditching, because I’m not sure how to structure it. I’m now thinking that my original structure was the best one, even though I had reasons for ditching it—reasons I’ve since come to realize had everything to do with trying to follow the “rules” and nothing to realize had little to do with the story I was trying to tell.

It doesn’t help that I originally envisioned that particular slaughtering of Pinocchio as essentially a tiered narrative—a story within a story within a story. O.O So take the “framed narrative” style of Wuthering Heights and add a level or two. I could make it a trilogy—story 1, story 2, story 3—but…that wouldn’t be the same.

Choices, choices. I do know the trilogy attempt isn’t working very well, perhaps because the story itself means I have to start in the the middle of book 2 in order to build the rest around. :-/

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Jami Gold September 3, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Hi Carradee,

Very true! So much of writing and revising is about figuring out the essence of the story we want to tell. :)

No wonder you’re struggling with that story–it definitely sounds like a unique premise. Good luck with figuring out how to make it work and thanks for the comment!

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Widdershins September 3, 2013 at 9:45 pm

Having just, and finally, figured out where to start a new novel, I feel your pain.
I knew the story I wanted to tell, but couldn’t find the right scene to begin with. I started five different ways before it came to me, from then on the scenes flowed, almost, effortlessly.

I did, however, write down all the scenes I tried, knowing that somewhere along the way they’ll come in handy.

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Jami Gold September 3, 2013 at 9:47 pm

Hi Widdershins,

Good thinking to keep the old scenes! We never know when we might use bits and pieces of conversations, descriptions, or settings later. :) I’m glad you found a beginning that worked for you and thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung September 5, 2013 at 7:50 pm

Hey Jami!

For story beginnings, I like to make sure that the starting scene has some sort of tension, conflict, mystery, crisis, or otherwise something negative and attention-grabbing in it. It’s important not to be confusing, but some of my favorite story beginnings are those where there’s a lot of mystery. E.g. a favorite book of mine started off with this young man who was always consumed by anger by some unknown cause. It was phrased a lot more elegantly than that, of course, but that negative emotion at the start grabbed my attention immediately.

We have to note though that different readers have different preferences for beginnings. One story writing guide praised Book X’s beginning, yet when I came to read Book X, the first page was absolutely boring to me, and I only began to be interested when I reached the last sentence of the first chapter. Yikes. The page-turner-ness was very good after that though.

Other examples (I actually made a long list of these types of effective beginnings sometime in the past. So I might as well share some here!):

–Setting descriptions: I’m actually quite an impatient person when it comes to setting descriptions. When I see these in books, I tend to skim–yes, even a literary fiction fan can be that impatient with setting descriptions. XD
The only time setting passages would engage me is if they convey a very strong NEGATIVE atmosphere. An Edgar Allan Poe style spooky/ominous setting is ideal for me. Or settings with a lot of mystery in them—ooh who is that mysterious person who always hangs out at that window, doing mysterious things that we can only see the silhouettes of?

Settings about beautiful, peaceful, happy places tend to bore me. I only like beautiful setting descriptions when it’s somewhere midway through the book. (Strangely enough, I’m more accepting of, and sometimes even welcome, happy PLOT EVENTS as book beginnings. So if you talked about how character X has a perfect life, then I would assume that something will go horribly wrong and would ruin her life, so I’m curious to find out what that is, lol. If you told me that Happy and Dramatic Event A happened to character X, I would go “Oh, okay”, and likely read on, just because it’s dramatic and I’m kind of curious how that big event would change that person’s life—and whether it’d be a change for the better or for the worse. Yet at some other times, I’m especially impatient and don’t feel attracted to any book at all unless the first paragraph shows that there is a problem, tension, conflict, or mystery—i.e. some important NEGATIVITY must be in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence. )

—Another beginning that worked for me:
The Weird Quirk of Protagonist First paragraph: (This kind of beginning is one of my favorite types.) The first paragraph tells you something very, very strange and abnormal about the protagonist. Strangeness and enigma hook my attention very quickly.

—the Interesting Animal Doing an Interesting thing first paragraph. In the first paragraph was a green parrot doing X. (Don’t remember what exactly.) Later I see that the parrot has nothing to do with the plot, but that doesn’t matter, because it drew me into the book to keep reading anyway, lol.

—-Start with a Dangerous, Life and Death situation—this was especially effective because we also saw a best friend pair (they were opposite-gendered best friends too, which always interests me even more, for some reason).
This opening was even more interesting in that it told us some personal quirks/ details about the heroine (e.g. she loves to draw.) Also, the opening hinted that there was a whole fantasy world/ system out there, and I always get excited when there’s a new fantasy/ sci-fi universe to explore and learn about!

—–Announce the Momentous Event that Will Happen in the first sentence. “Big Shocking/ Momentous/ Strange, etc. Event Will Happen.” E.g. “X didn’t know that this would be the day that…” This is sort of like a foreshadow/ teaser technique, and always gets me interested and want to find out how exactly this ended up happening, what came before, etc.

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Jami Gold September 6, 2013 at 10:18 am

Hi Serena,

Yes, as you said, I think some sort of tension, mystery, or something negative is good for a first page. I just read the opening for a heavily-hyped book about to come out. At first glance, it seems like pages of what’s essentially info dump, but it was crisp, full of voice, and heavy with a sense of danger.

It’s not how I would have done it, but given the tone of the book, it works in the big picture. Like you pointed out, we’re all going to have different preferences as readers.

In looking at your great list, I think this excerpt would fall into the “Weird Quirk of Protagonist” and “Announce the Momentous Event” and maybe even a bit of “Dangerous, Life and Death Situation” categories. So yeah, I guess I can see why it works. LOL!

Thanks for sharing your list and for the comment! :)

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Haley Whitehall September 30, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Hi Jami, this is another helpful writing post as always. I think writing the beginning of the story is the hardest part to get right. Endings come a close second. I have learned that I can’t figure out where my story truly starts until after I’ve written the entire story. So searching for when/how my story should start always comes in the editing phase.

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Jami Gold September 30, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Hi Haley,

Yep, and there’s nothing wrong with that process. Everyone is different as far as how much or what type of information they need to start drafting. (Witness the pantser/plotter debate. :) ) Thanks for the comment!

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