There’s a lot of pressure when trying to figure out how to start your story. Your beginning is crucial–it can draw in or scare off the reader. So of course you want to make it absolutely perfect! But how do you start a story off the right way? Sure you’ll need to write a gripping opening line that will snag the reader’s attention, but then what?
Your story should start at the action. Now, when I say “action” this doesn’t have to be a car chase, shootout, explosion, or ninja assassins (although ninja assassins are pretty awesome).
The “action” is the event that sets your story into motion. Think of yourself as a movie director…your actors (characters) are all in place, the stage is set, and now you call for the action to begin.
You’ve probably heard people tell you to start with the action before, which I think can be a misleading/confusing term. You don’t want to start with just any action. Or action for the sake of action. I think a more accurate term is the inciting incident. Fancy, eh?
The inciting incident of your story is the event that triggers the rest of the plot. So, if event A didn’t happen, then we wouldn’t have B (your story). To find your inciting incident, look at your story’s ending and ask yourself, what led to this event? Keep tracing the chain of events back until you can’t go any further. Aha! There’s your inciting incident.
Now, an inciting incident can be tricky to pin down. You may end up with more than one. And that’s okay! Pick the best one and structure your story around it. You want to start your story as close to the inciting incident as possible.
Let’s look at some examples.
In The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins lets us know by the end of the first paragraph that something is about to happen:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
No exploding cars or machine guns, but the author is getting right to the point. Today is different. This is the day that everything changes for the main character. By the end of the first chapter we have the inciting incident–Prim’s name being drawn in the reaping for the Hunger Games. This causes Katniss to volunteer to take her place, and results in the rest of the story’s events. If Prim’s name hadn’t been drawn, we would have no story.
Let’s look at another example–the first Harry Potter film. Here is the opening scene (for those of you who aren’t big enough nerds to have it memorized 😉 ):
Another pretty calm beginning, but a lot is going on here. Harry’s parents have been murdered by Lord Voldemort, and he is dropped off on his aunt and uncle’s doorstep. This is the day that changes everything for Harry. The inciting incident is the murder of his parents–if Voldemort hadn’t killed them, we would have no story.
As you can see, starting with the action doesn’t require actual physical action. The trick is to get to the point, but arouse interest at the same time. You should have your inciting incident occur by the end your first chapter. Don’t make the reader wait for the story to start! Make them feel as though things are being set in motion from the beginning. The last thing you want is a story that feels stagnant.
When you write your first draft you’ll probably write a lot of unnecessary scenes or back story in the beginning as you develop your characters and story. During the editing stages, hone in on where your story truly starts and get rid of everything that comes before (either by deleting it or weaving it into the story later on if it’s truly relevant).
You can still add in information about your characters and story world in the beginning to set it up for the reader, but don’t make that the sole purpose of the scene and don’t overload us!
And most importantly, don’t make the opening scene exciting just for the heck of it–it has to be relevant to the rest of the story. If the story can be told without that scene, you need to rewrite it. Your beginning shouldn’t be able to stand alone–it needs to be connected and inseparable to the rest of the plot.
Now go write a kick-ass beginning!
What’s the inciting incident of your story or favorite book/movie?