We’re almost to the new year, and that means we’re inundated with year-end posts wrapping up what we’ve learned or experienced. Lists abound with the best stories and posts of the year, and I’ve already seen several retrospectives analyzing what we can learn from what succeeded and what failed over the past year.
But I want to do something different with this post. While we’re in the mood to talk about New Year’s Resolutions and new beginnings, let’s take those thoughts over to our stories.
Why do people make New Year’s Resolutions rather than just changing for the better as soon as the idea comes to them? Because people like the clean slate of a new beginning and starting the year off on the right foot.
In the same way, we want to start our story off on the right foot. So today, I want to talk about our story beginnings. *smile*
The Pressure of Story Beginnings
A lot goes into deciding how to begin our story. We have to introduce the characters, the story, and the setting. We want to hint at what the protagonist longs for and show an immediate obstacle in the way that creates a near-term goal. We have to make it interesting, not confusing, or not accidentally misleading. Etc., etc., etc.
Most writers have probably struggled with some element of a story’s beginning. I certainly have…
- In Treasured Claim, I knew everything about the first page, but I kept emphasizing the wrong elements.
- In Pure Sacrifice, I knew the opening scene, but not how to tie it into the rest of the story.
- In Ironclad Devotion, I debated between several potential openings before I typed a word.
Er, yeah, I think it’s safe to say that story beginnings can be tricky. *smile*
Our Goal: Getting It Close Enough to Write More
If we think too much about all the elements we need to include in our story opening, we might seize up and not write anything. The sight of that blank page can paralyze us, preventing us from making it past the first line or the first page. That’s a problem.
As a perfectionist, I understand how easy it is to want a story opening to feel perfect before we move on. However, we’ll rarely come up with the perfect beginning—much less a perfect first page—while drafting.
Rather than obsessing over that, we just need to get the draft close. Our definition of a “good” beginning should simply be for the story to head vaguely in the right direction.
If our story kicks off the right plot and character premise, we can almost always fix issues in revisions. So we should focus on having enough of a plan to get a good start, but we shouldn’t stress about perfection.
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 Ironclad Devotion, 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 heroine 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 Pure Sacrifice, 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.
- Close-Up Picture: How Our Story Should Start
Avoid off notes. In Treasured Claim, 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. I needed a lot of feedback on character likability issues to figure out what to emphasize.
The best story openings will likely succeed on all three levels. We can move from the big picture down to the specifics as we work on our story.
Let’s see if we can break down those tips into concrete steps for figuring out our story opening…
Step #1: Discover Where Our Story Should Start
We can start our story thousands of ways. To narrow down our choices, we need to figure out what we want to accomplish: What impression do we want the reader to have from our beginning?
Unless we’re pantsing our story (writing by the seat of our pants) with almost nothing in mind, we’re usually going to have an idea about our story’s premise: “It’s about a man who has to save his wife from kidnappers.”
Our premise usually contains clues about the ending of our story. In our example, the man will save his wife from kidnappers (unless we’re writing a tragedy).
- If we want a story about not taking things for granted, we might show a beginning where the couple snipes at each other for nitpicky things.
- If we want a story about finding our inner strength, we might show a beginning where a mean boss bullies the man at work.
That contrast will kick off our story’s arc in right direction.
Step #2: Discover When Our Story Should Start
Those examples above give us a concept for our beginning, but we need to decide how that scene leads to the rest of the story. A story opening with a bullying boss will fall flat if it’s followed by an info dump or a scene of ho-hum grocery shopping on the way home from work.
Instead, we want that beginning scene to occur just before something happens to the protagonist that forces a change or decision. Many stories will end one of the first few chapters on an Inciting Incident. Inciting Incidents can be a hook or twist to start setting up the main conflict, or they might act as a bridging conflict to keep readers interested until the main story conflict begins.
Our goal at this step is to tie our beginning scene into the rest of the story. Maybe our bullied protagonist is deep into a high-pressure work deadline the boss gave him when the kidnappers call with their demands. Or maybe our sniping protagonist is at the grocery store when his wife’s cell number displays (“Yes, I remembered the milk, Deanna! I’m not stupid.”), and he discovers it’s not his wife on the other end of the line.
Once we know the opening scene and how it ties into the rest of the story, we’ll typically have anywhere from the first tenth to the first quarter of our story planned. Now we just have to write it. *smile*
Step #3: Discover How Our Story Should Start
We know the concept of the opening scene, the impression we want readers to have, and the story direction for the opening. With all that in mind, we’ll draft those first pages.
However, beginnings aren’t about setting up the character and their situation. Beginnings are about setting up elements of the story’s conflicts. Readers will learn about the character and their situation along the way.
To hint at a character’s longing or the obstacles in their way, we could:
- show a choice the character makes that demonstrates how they’re sabotaging themselves from reaching their potential,
- show a problem the character has to deal with that gives readers the impression we want about some of the character’s traits, or
- show a problem that gives readers hints about the main conflict.
The point is to show conflict. Readers want to see characters in action, showing who they are, their strengths and weaknesses, and what matters to them.
That doesn’t mean we have to show action-filled conflict. Conflict can mean problems, obstacles, internal debate, or even just a gap between what readers expect and what we deliver. Readers simply have to get the sense that there’s a story here.
We Can Always Change Our Beginning in Revision
This “going from the big picture to the specific” method forces us to know our goal before putting our fingers to keyboard. Or worst-case scenario, we could use this method during revisions to come up with a new beginning that won’t lead readers astray.
Once we’re done drafting, we’ll have a better idea of our story, our characters, and our arcs and themes. Then during revisions, we could ask ourselves, “Is this the best way to…?”
- introduce the protagonist
- set the genre, setting, and story mood and tone
- hint at the theme or character arc
- lead into the story problem
- create curiosity in readers
- hint at what the character longs for or what their goal or motivation is
- develop emotional hooks, etc.
“Best” can be tricky. Some options might be best for grabbing readers’ attention, but other options might be best for setting reader expectations.
Usually, we’d want to choose the latter. An action-packed opening scene at the beginning of a quiet memoir would only mislead readers.
For story openings, once we reach the revision stage, we want to keep reader impressions at the forefront of our decisions. These scenes will be shared in our book’s excerpts and Amazon’s Look Inside feature, so we definitely want to ensure that we’re attracting the right kind of readers for our story.
A story beginning is a clean slate for a reader. With the right opening, hopefully our readers will have a happy experience, and having a great story to share might bode well for a Happy New Year for us. *smile*
Do you struggle with story beginnings? Do you think looking at these three levels could 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? Do you have other suggestions on how to figure out the right beginning?Pin It