I got a new idea for a story over the weekend. This happens, maybe I should lay off cinema sins and having vivid dreams. It’s a science fiction thriller and that’s not something I’d normally call my style. But I’m willing to play with it and see where it goes.
Being still in the formative phases of this story, it occurred to me that I don’t know exactly where this story begins. In the words of Shirley Bassey… “where do I begin to tell the story about how great a love can be… where do I start?”
Where to start your story is one of the biggest decisions that a writer has to make. The beginning of the story is the ‘hook’ to get reader’s interested. The first five pages to three chapters are what a fledgling writers send to literary agents. These are what the reader judges the quality of your work and if your type of story interests them or not. If your work is part of a series, it’s even more important to know where the story begins, because where you story begins is going to help determine how many books you’re actually writing to fill the needs and goals of the characters
One of the things to consider is what is important to show in your story and what is important to tell. Does your reader really need to know about the characters 8 year old incident with a bicycle, the neighborhood dog and ending up in the hospital? Probably not. Sure, it’s a funny story, but unless your story is truly focused on what happened when your child was an eight year old (hello Ramona Quimby) then that’s probably not something you want to show in your story.
The most common piece of advice is to start in the middle of things. This is a short hand for saying ‘start where the exciting stuff happens, not fifteen years before it begins.” Think about the story of your life, sure started when you were born, but that’s not when it got interesting. Your life probably got interesting when you met that one person or took that one job or went to that place. Fight Club starts out when we meet Tyler Durden. The Devil Wear’s Prada starts out when she takes the fashion magazine job. Because that is where the story got interesting and where it all began.
These are the inciting incidents in our lives. It’s where the plot starts happening, conflicts arise and we as a reader or as a person start heading towards a climax where we must make a decision one way or the other. And different incidents in our lives are going to start different stories we tell.
When I first started writing Heathens, I had a big story plot in my head like an action movie. And I wrote notes for it and when I had it all planned up to a funny “post credits scene,” I looked at it and went “wait, I have so many things resolved already here story wise. Where did this guy come from? Why is this action so important? Why do I need that post credit scene that ‘turns the story on it’s head?'”
I realized that my story started way before the story I had planned. Of the questions, the easiest one to answer was “Where did this guy come from?” And as soon as I answered that question, I had an inciting incident for my story. I had a catalyst that started the real story, started where things got interesting and things weren’t resolved where there was actual conflict and struggle that this story I’d just planned out had already finished. But if I hadn’t come up where I wanted the story to potentially go, I might not have the story I have now.
With Dawn Warrior, I knew instantly where the action started. It started with Roxana being cursed. Not her first curse or her second curse, but so many curses down the line that she can’t remember them. But this curse is an important curse and kicks off what happens next in the story. It’s a short reminder that she is running out of time to break her curses. But Roxana is a lot easier, it’s a broken fairy tale. There was slightly more structure to the story than with Heathens.
Knowing where to start your story is where reading and watching and analyzing other media comes into play. How do other people start their stories? How successful are those incidents? How necessary was it to show what they showed versus could that same information been told in favor of focusing more time the main conflict?
Sometimes knowing where your story begins is simple and reasonable and easy to lay out. It happened one night when… Other times it is following your gut instinct and closing your eyes and going “here, here is where it resonates. Here is where the story starts.”
And save the funny back stories that aren’t important to the plot at hand for short stories and bonus material.