Where to start?

It’s a story thing. When does the story start? Is it with a big bang moment, or an introduction to the normal life?

None of the above, is what I’d say.

Why?

I read a lot of stories that open with a big moment, or a deep character moment, and after a page or two, it moves into backstory to explain how the story got to that point. Which defeats the purpose of the story, in my view.

That big moment may have been the inciting idea, the spark behind the story, but it isn’t the whole story, it isn’t the beginning the reader needs.

Open with the first point where the conflict is bubbling either under the surface but clearly felt, or the character is struggling with the concept of change in their life. Before the eruption of conflict, before the decision to take action to get, do, become (which is then the story quest/question to be answered at the end: does she get it?).

When planning stories, they often start as an idea, then the idea becomes a person involved with a problem, then it becomes a journey that starts and ends. Finding the start is important. Too much big-bang moment and the reader won’t care about the character because they don’t know them and can’t empathise with the situation. Too much internalisation of character, and there’s no story action, no momentum.

The choice of words (verbs are good ones) can indicate movement toward action before the action is overt (the long, dark alley loomed over …) or a character can be a duality – saying and doing external things that look and sound normal, but underneath is where the tension lies (If she says that one more time, I’m gone. “I’ll be there, I’ll be on time. Stop fretting.” Now, shut up about it!).

When I read a story because the opening was interesting, and then it goes into backstory within the first few (ten, I’m thinking) chapters (unless it’s a short story, which probably works better with no more than a sentence of backflash rather than any backstory), I’ll give up on the story. I want to experience the story that’s happening in the now, and I don’t want explanations of the why it got to this stage. Backstory isn’t in the now, so I (as reader) know the character survived, know it isn’t worth expending emotional energy on, and it can be skimmed. I don’t like explanations/exposition that delves into the how and why we’re here slog. Show me the tiny slices of the character’s change process through what he is at the beginning, to the lessons learned through experience (the three times it takes for it to sink in), and the end of the story where the question is answered in some way (whether the initial goal/purpose of the story was worth the journey, if they got what they wanted whether it was worth it or not, whether the change process was more important than the goal and they learned something different and more compelling, etc.).

But the open of the story is the start of the sequence of change, so it needs to be linear in the planning, even if it doesn’t work out that way in the final version.

Chronological planning helps design a better story because it shows where it all began to change the life of the character. It’s the point of impact where the world spins a different way in that moment. Everything is on the point of change, and it’s going to affect the character in momentous ways (internal, external, and world view, community, etc.).

So, what am I saying?

Start at the beginning, not at a fairy-light or explosion point. Start at the beginning and move forward. Start with the sense of change about to happen to someone we’ve attached to through the careful use of words to indicate he’s not in the right place in his life at this moment and he knows it, even if he’s scared to make the changes he knows are necessary to move into his future.

Sounds so simple …

See you next week.

Photo by Sebastian Palomino on Pexels.com

25 thoughts on “Where to start?

  1. Good advice! I am working on a story this week in which the beginning is a cinematic, bird’s eye view of the (messed up) setting. No characters yet. I’ve never tried this, and it may not work, but I wanted to give it a shot.

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