Where Should You Begin Your Story?

Where Should You Begin Your Story?

Just for fun, today I’d thought I’d give you a sneak peek of my upcoming book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story. The book, available September 1, 2013, x-rays our notion of storycraft to get past the outer aesthetics right on down to the muscular and skeletal systems that make our books work. Once we grasp the mechanics of structure, we’re able to take so much of the guesswork out of crafting a strong story from start to finish.

Today, I’d like to share an excerpt from Chapter 2, which talks about one of the trickiest questions any author is faced with: Where to begin the story?

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Authors are much more likely to begin their stories too soon, rather too late. We feel the pressure of making sure readers are well-informed. They have to understand what’s going on to care about it, right? To some extent, yes, of course they do. But the problem with all this info right at the beginning is that it distracts from what readers find most interesting: the character reacting to his current plight.

What is the first dramatic event?

The question you need to ask yourself is, “What is the first dramatic event in the plot?” Finding this event will help you figure out the first domino in your story’s line of dominoes.

In some stories that first domino can take place years before the story proper and therefore will be better told as a part of the backstory. But, nine times out often, this will be your best choice for a beginning scene.

What is your first major plot point?

Another thing to keep in mind is the placement of your First Plot Point, which should occur around the 25% mark (we’ll discuss this in more depth in Chapter 6). If you begin your story too soon or too late, you’ll jar the balance of your book and force your major plot points at the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks off schedule.(We’ll be discussing these plot points and their placements at length later on, but, for now, let me just emphasize that these placements at the quarter marks in the story are general guidelines. Unlike movies, which operate on a much tighter structural timeline, novels have the room to allow long series of scenes to build one into the other to create the plot points as a whole—and thus can occur over long sections, even chapters, rather than smack on the money at the quarter marks.)

Consider your First Plot Point, which will be the first major turning point for your characters and, as a result, often the Inciting or Key Event (which we’ll also discuss in Chapter 6). The setup that occurs prior to these scenes should take no more than a quarter of the book. Anymore than that and you’ll know you’ve begun your story too early and need to do some cutting.

What are the three essentials?

The most important thing to keep in mind is the most obvious: No deadweight. The beginning doesn’t have to be race-’em-chase-’em, particularly since you need to take the time to introduce and set up characters. But it does have to be tight. Otherwise, your readers are gone.

How do you grip readers with can’t-look-away action, while still taking the time to establish character? How do you decide upon the perfect moment to open the scene? How do you balance just the right amount of information to keep from confusing readers, while at same time raising the kind of intriguing questions that make them want to read on? When we come down to it, there are only three integral components necessary to create a successful opening: character, action, and setting.

Barnes and Noble editorial director Liz Scheier offered an anecdote that sums up the necessity of these three elements:

A professor of mine once posed it to me this way, thumping the podium for emphasis: “It’s not ‘World War II began’! It’s ‘Hitler. Invaded. Poland.’”

Scheier’s professor not only made a sturdy case for the active voice, he also offered a powerful beginning.

Tell me your opinion: How did you decide where to begin your latest story?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This is really helpful information. Since childhood, I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I’m currently working on one now between work and life. I have found your site very informative and inspiring.

  2. Glad you found it helpful! Sometimes it can be difficult to fit in writing between “work and life” – since those two things seem to take up the vast majority of our time! But it’s always worth it.

  3. Interesting and informative. It’s amazing how much that can be said with a simple anecdote. I will remember that quote from the professor.

    BTW, I watched some of your teaching videos on YouYube yesterday. Very good ad pedagogical >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  4. Yes, and it’s tough to forget a three-word formula! Glad you’re enjoying the videos.

  5. I wanted to introduce the antagonist early on as the biggest challenge in the MC’s life, but I also wanted to give the reader a glimpse of that life. So a short Chapter 1 establishes the MC as a precocious yet sympathetic person, doing intriguing work and living an exotic, futuristic lifestyle. In Chapter 2, the MC’s composure is severely tested by the antagonist’s flirtations toward her, his tutor, and his defiant attitude to his own shortcomings as an undergraduate scientist.
    His defiance, linked to the economic control his father has over the college dept that runs his course and employs the MC, make up the first dramatic event in the plot.

  6. Bravo. Opening with a suitable “normal world” scene is so important, but it’s easy for authors to get caught up in the perceived need to immediately crank the conflict to the hilt.

  7. Captivating the reader is never as easy as we writers would like to think. The more I read, the more I realize how easy it is to put a book down if even the first paragraph is about setup and introduction.

    In the novel I’m currently revising, I cut the first two chapters so I could open with the crisis those chapters had been leading up to. It was a challenge to provide enough about the protagonist at that point and insert all the other information in bits and pieces later, but I think the results were worth the effort.

    I’m really looking forward to your September release.

  8. This is, in a nutshell, exactly why beginnings are so challenging. It’s easy enough to provide readers with necessary information about our characters, settings, and conflicts. Also easy enough to write a gripping hook. It’s somehow combining them seamlessly and powerfully that gets tricky.

  9. This is just what I need help with right now–where to begin my story.
    I’m sure you explain it more in the book, but what is the difference between first dramatic event and first major plot point?

  10. I like to think of where and how I want the main character to end up by the close of the story, then at the beginning put him or her as far back from that as I can and illustrate his “before ” status with something besides wrote narrative, opting for a bit of theme or symbolism. I have no problem dumping the reader into the main character’s mind or in the middle of the action. Here is the first line of introduction of my main character from my current project:

    “Gary Sykes was worried about his Paladin.”

  11. @Erika: Yes, much more about that in the book. The first dramatic event is the first event in the story. The first major plot point will occur around the 25% mark and will mark a significant and unalterable change in your character’s “normal world.”

    @Phil: Spot on. I talk about these “before and after” scenes more in the book as well. If we know where we want our characters to end up, it makes it much easier for us to decide who they need to be in the beginning.

  12. This is an area I’m struggling with at the moment. In my first novel I started with the protagonist lost and confused (the event that precipitates his meeting with the heroine) in the second I have a seemingly normal but high energy event in the middle of preparations for a coronation building up to an assassination attempt in the second chapter. In both cases, a published writer and editor told me that my opening chapter wasn’t dramatic enough. When I changed this in the first chapter of the second novel to a much more dramatic scene another editor commented that it was too much too soon. Trying to get these first chapters right is a real headache – especially since it seems that one’s novel is judged (sometimes almost exclusively) on the the first chapters or in some case sentence. It can be very discouraging.

  13. I needed a new way to start my story, since my original opening was a little too archetypical and made the hero too passive, and while looking over a subplot I’d had planned (a student throws himself off a catwalk in an acid-induced haze, and the protagonist looks into why) I figured why not move that to the very start and make it lead into the main plot. It gives an instant hook and gets the plot moving right away, though now I’m wondering if I’ve started a bit too late into the story.

    And thanks for all the great stuff on this site, it’s been incredibly helpful.

  14. Personally, I like to start my novels and hook my readers like TV shows do – at the first [action-related] plot point. After this “Prologue” I then do a “12 hours earlier” Chapter 1 to start setting things up. But I never thought that there might be a “recipe” for doing this correctly. Thanks for opening me up to this possibility. Can’t wait for your book 🙂

  15. @Jenny: More than perhaps anything else, that balance between character and action in the opening scene is what is most difficult about beginnings. The trick is finding an opening scene that introduces or sets up the primary conflict, introduces the story world, and, most importantly, introduces the character as someone the reader will want to hang out with. If we look at successful stories, we see that the vast majority of them begin *before* the central conflict with an offshoot of that conflict, which focuses on introducing the character.

    @Kyle: Starting too early is almost as bad as starting too late. We have to find that perfect balance that allows us to set up the story – without dragging out readers’ patience too long.

    @Jeffrey: What you’re talking about is a “flashforward” (which I talk about more in the book). This can be an extremely effective way to to hook readers, but it can also be tricky, since whatever follows has to be just as riveting.

  16. I start where I start, naturally, without thinking about it. Then I go back and analyze whether the starting point was for my own private benefit – merely to get things going – or if it’s crucial to the reader. If it’s not crucial, it gets cut. It hurts at first to cut entire paragraphs or even chapters, but the more I practice it, the easier it gets. Definitely worth it not to lose your reader within the first few lines! Thanks for the post!

  17. Good approach. Our guts are often smarter than our brains. Sometimes over-thinking the beginning just muddies the water and keeps us from seeing what’s really important to the story.

  18. In my current WIP, the story begins as Nelly moves to college and is carrying her belongings up to her dorm room. She loses her car keys and finds her boyfriend’s gun in her car. She locks her car and keeps the gun in her car. The chapter ends with her walking past the car and seeing the door open. She finds blood in the seat. So I began the story when the “weird” events started happening to her.

    I start my stories when the abnormal parts of the main characters’ lives start. (Or like a few pages before that, so you have a brief “normal life” feel. )

  19. Sometimes that very contrast of an unusual event (and the character’s reaction to it) is enough to indicate the normal world through the context.

  20. I just posted about this today. Thanks for this. I’ll link to it in my follow up post on how to start your story.

    The most current story starts just as my characters are swept into another time and place. It’s a sequel, so I’m relying on book #1 readers to enjoy this fast take off since they’ll already be familiar with the characters.

    http://writegame.blogspot.com/2013/07/how-to-start-writing-that-next-book-and_6869.html

  21. In some respects, sequels are easier to begin, since so much of the basic set up is already out of the way. In other respects, they’re twice as hard, since you have to tactfully make sure readers are up to speed with previous events.

  22. Saw this article referenced on Twitter. Looks like you got at least one more person that is going to buy your book. 🙂

    In addition to writing, I love studying the craft and . . . I too will borrow the professor’s three words nailing the start of a story. Thanks for the post.

  23. Thanks for stopping by! I write because I love stories, but I admit the craft aspect is entirely addictive!

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