Finding the Beginning of Your Story

I picked this idea up at a Pikes Peak Writers Write Brain, and now I can’t remember who gave the presentation or the book that inspired them.  Dur.

A common problem I see with beginning writers is that they don’t know when to begin a story–that is, they’ll go on for pages and pages, only reaching the actual beginning of the story after a lot of other stuff has happened.  Whole chapters.

Some people have a feel for it.  I didn’t.  Instead of studying stories to deduce any commonalities, I instead listened to writing advice:  start with an opening stasis.

Here’s the pattern I learned:

  • Opening stasis.
  • Inciting incident.
  • Crisis/Reversal.
  • Climax.
  • Closing stasis.

This is a logical pattern for someone reading a book.  This is not helpful for someone writing a book.

Another piece of advice that did me no good whatsoever:

  • Start in the middle (in media res).

Because…where?  Where in the middle?  Wait, start in the middle of the opening stasis?  Where does the opening stasis begin!?!

Again, these things are helpful if you’re trying to analyze choices a writer has already made.  However, they really do you no good when you’re trying to make your own choices.

Like I said, I picked this up from elsewhere, but for some reason, I haven’t been able to explain it very well until recently (yesterday).  So here’s my rule of thumb:

  • Start your story at the exact moment when, no matter what your main character does, nothing will ever be the same.

That might sound restrictive, but you can disguise it by making it look like an opening stasis.  In fact, most (good) stories that start out with what appears to be an opening stasis are really starting with the straw before the straw that broke the camel’s back…only there was no avoiding that next straw, see?

  • Star Wars:  Starts when Vader attacks a diplomatic ship, causing Leia to jettison the droids.  Oh, Luke might have managed not to pick up the droids or take them to Ben Kenobi, but doing so would have meant breaking character.  Lucas tantalizes us with the possibility that Luke might not get taken up with the adventure (by offering up the other droid for sale first, for example), but he’s just teasing, and we know it.
  • Pride & Prejudice:  Starts when the best of all possible bachelors moves into town at the exact moment when Mrs. Bennet is determined to get her old, less-favored daughters married and out of the way, so she can stop worried about them being tossed out in the street when her husband dies.  If they won’t marry Bingley…they’re going to marry somebody.  She doesn’t care, really.
  • Sandman:  Starts when the museum curator brings the magus Burgess the book he needs to trap Death…but captures Dream instead.
  • Nine Princes in Amber:  Starts with the first moment Corwin throws off the drugs enough to wonder where and who he is.  Doesn’t take much…but the moral of the story is “Don’t @#$% with Corwin,” so that’s all right.
  • The Hobbit: Starts with Gandalf arriving…to put a mark on Bilbo’s door as a code for the dwarves.
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Starts with a very bored little girl who’s tired of listening to her sister read improving morals, who happens to see a rabbit with a waistcoat.
  • The Neverending Story:  Starts with BBB hiding in a bookshop from bullies…and deciding to steal a particularly interesting book.
  • The Dragonbone Chair (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn):  Starts with the day that the old king decides to pull himself together one last time…but is really just a setup to get Simon to hide out with Morgenes to avoid any real work.  Kings?  Not nearly as important as a three-frog story.
  • The Gunslinger:  Starts with Roland following the Man in Black.  Nothing changes; things just go on and on until he meets Jake.  Given the ending, an appropriate deviation from the pattern.  I wonder whether King had any idea of what the ending would be, when he started that first book.  The copy I have is the revised one; I’m pretty sure he knew by that point.
  • One of my favorite beginnings is in  Five Hundred Years After, by Stephen Brust.  On a surface level, a servant gives a message to the Emperor that a certain noble won’t be attending the meeting to determine who’s going to pay the Imperial tax, because she’s indisposed.  Arguably, it’s finally knowing that he’s broke that drives the Emperor to do what he does through the book…but more subtly, the particular noble is one being blackmailed by the bad guy, and this is the first outward sign of the plot he’s putting into place.

An opening stasis isn’t a stasis at all:  it’s looks like a stasis, but really it’s the subtle shift in snow that starts an avalanche.  And starting in media res?  Sure, you could start with a bunch of explosions, but your audience will be confused until we get to the actual beginning.  Explosions don’t move us:  a story that supports those explosions with plot moves us.

Prologues:

Mostly, the prologues of beginning writers are no good.  Boring, usually involving characters for whom we have no empathy, and something that would probably go down better as a paragraph of backstory in Chapter 3.

Yet I’ve read some good prologues.  I would tend to say that the ones I’ve liked don’t give “history,” they give the very first twinkling that the story will occur–the first snowflakes falling that will cause that avalanche.  The incidents in the prologue stand out as being not one of any number of incidents that might have contributed to the story (like a memory of a character’s father, who inspired her to become a firefighter) but is the incident, without which the story could never have occurred (the memory of a character’s father kissing her goodbye before he dies in a terrible blaze to save a bunch of kids, saying before he leaves, “I’m sorry I have to go, but I hope you’re proud of me, baby” “No, papa, I want you to stay at my birthday party!”  “I can’t, baby.  I need to save lives”).  And then, of course, you have to start the story all over again, showing the moment when the character’s life changes forever, in the present.

But the ones where the bad guy explains his evil plot to take over the world?  Borrrring.  The ones where the evil plot first touches the main character, that is, the real opening of the story, are usually much better.  Now, a prologue where the bad guy’s evil plot first starts to go horribly, horribly wrong, that might be fun.

Backstory:

I think this also helps explain why beginning writers get so tied up in backstory, too, even though it drives readers nuts.  You hear the “rule” to start with something exciting, but that something exciting may not be the beginning of the story.  And once you’ve started backtracking, you throw in all kinds of back material that seems important, but is really not important to that moment when nothing could ever be the same.  Do we need to know about firefighter girl’s mother?  Not really.  Her grandparents?  Her hometown?  Her friends at the party?  No.  Those are not the things which changed her life forever.  They can show up, but only if they don’t slow us down.  We’ll pick up on that kind of stuff as we go along.

Starting with an explosion or some other interesting, exciting flashbangwhizgee, then shifting to backstory, immediately tells the reader that the writer doesn’t know where the beginning of the story is.  Sorry.

Your story’s genre will lend itself to some traditions (like serial-killer books starting with a prologue involving the death of a victim).  If you choose to follow those traditions, make sure that they identify the real beginning of your book.  Why this victim?  What sets this murder apart, for the investigators (as in Darkly Dreaming Dexter–the killer isn’t just your typical serial killer, but kills in a way that Dex has never seen before and can’t even imagine how it’s done [although I can’t remember how exactly the book starts now, dammit]).

If you must start with explosions, have those explosions conceal (but not too cleverly) the beginning seeds of inevitable change.

Why this time, and not some other?

4 comments

  1. Sometimes I’ll have a very clear first line or opening scene that I like but sometimes I don’t know the perfect scene to start in.

    One trick I’ve found is to just start writing. I’ll need to ‘write up’ to where things start clicking along. Then I can go back and cut out the first three pages. But I find I needed to write them so I knew how I got there.

  2. De says:

    I’ve done that, too. But I’m trying to be more efficient as a writer and not throw out 50 pages, that kind of thing.

  3. Liz says:

    My rule of thumb for starting a story tends to be “dive right into the action.” It makes it more exciting for me to write, and, I think, for my audience to read. If later on I realize that it doesn’t really work as a beginning, it can always be changed.

    I want to be the kind of writer that throws in tiny, tiny bits of backstory as she goes, keeping the reader wanting more backstory, so much that they’re almost more interested in getting the full backstory than they are in the main story. Dean Koontz is really good at this. I want to be good at it, too.

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