Sunday, February 19, 2012

Starting a Story

One of the hardest things to decide is where to start your story. One piece of advice is to start the story with action. Another piece of conventional wisdom is to start a story at the point just before your main character’s life changes. Like most writing maxims, these pieces of advice are only helpful to a point. Followed blindly, these pieces of wisdom can ensure you start in the wrong point.

Bullets flying around the main character’s head can make for an exciting scene. However, if the story starts with those same bullets flying, the story might fall flat. The same thing can happen if the story starts with the moment the main character gets superpowers. Why?

When you drop a reader into physical action in the beginning, the tension starts to build before a reader has a chance to connect with a character. Similarly, if the story starts too close to the life changing event the reader might not understand the full extent of the change. In both scenarios, the reader doesn’t care about the character yet, and won’t worry about whether the character survives (in the action setting) or chooses another path (in the life changing setup). Also, if you start with pure action, it’s likely that you’ll have to flashback or have “maid and butler” type dialog to fill in the relevant details for the reader. On the other hand, if you start too far away from the event, you might lose the reader to boredom before the story starts.

So what’s the answer?

Each story will have its own feel, and starting point. Remember, action means more
than bullets flying. Dialog is action. Motion is action. So you can heed the directive to start with action by doing something other than opening with a fight scene. Ideally, the story will flow organically without the need to interrupt it to fill in details. If you find yourself stopping the action to tell the reader something she needs to know to understand what’s happening, you’ve
probably started too late.

Somepeople have an inherent sense of where to start. I say inherent, but most of those people have spent years developing that sense. It’s a lot like taking a decade to become an overnight success. If you aren’t one of those people who “know” where a story should start, you might need to write many different openings to find the one that feels right. Feedback from a good writing group is invaluable. (I’ll talk about what makes a good writing group in a later post). Listen to what your writing group or beta readers have to say about the opening. They aren’t always right, but if multiple people make the same comment, you should revisit your story with an eye to seeing what they did.

Finding the right opening is somewhat like finding that perfect partner. It takes work,
but is worth all the effort.

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