Where do I begin?

One of the questions that seems to come up a lot with new writers is the age old debate about where to start the story. There are countless places to choose to begin the tale. You can drop the reader straight into the action and then explain the story, you can give them backstory, you can start many years ago, you can start at the end, and anywhere in between.

Just like there is no one right way to write, there is no one way to start a story. Each one requires something different.I, personally, do not much care for starting the story with back story, but it is becoming common (it has been a staple in fantasy for years) and can be very well done.

When people ask me about how to determine where to start a story, I always suggest the same thing: start at or just before the moment of change. Your character has been a farmhand for years and years, but then is found to be the heir of the king. In that situation, start your story either at the moment your character discovers the truth, or perhaps with the arrival of the person who will tell him the truth. This makes for a stronger start than an entire chapter of the character working on the farm, and gets the story moving immediately.

The opening is one of the most crucial parts of the story. Consider that you have one sentence to a paragraph to convince your reader that this book/story/poem is for them. Whether you start with an action or a scene or something else, you need to make it memorable. How is the best way to do that for your story?

Consider theses examples:

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” — William Gibson, Neuromancer

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — George Orwell, 1984

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” — Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

“I come from a family with a lot of dead people.” Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The Hobbit, J.R. R. Tolkein

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” The Crow Road, Iain Banks

“Mother died today.” The Stranger, Albert Camus

These are all considered some of the greatest opening lines in Western Literature. They vary in tone, and how they open the story. Some start immediately with a bang or moment of change, some introduce the narrator or greet the reader, some describe the world of the story, but all of them hook you in.

The details are what make them stick. The first question makes you question, makes you curious about what is going to happen, and that moment is where the story should being.

Here’s one last quote to remember about finding the start of the story:

“A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” The End of the Affair, Graham Greene.

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1 Comment »

  1. Laura Said:

    I like getting at least a little time to warm up to the story. If I’m dropped straight into the middle of the action with no clue why these people are acting as they do, I tend to disconnect and read their actions like a list. Tom said this. Mary did this. So Jane did that. And if I don’t understand why, or am not even curious about why, I don’t care.


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