The “Establishing Shot”–and 9 More Ways to Strengthen Your Story’s Beginning

Just for the record: I hate beginnings. The first fifty pages of my novels are inevitably torture to write. I’m always sure I’ve lost my touch, convinced that every successful story in the past was a fluke, absolutely certain I’ll never make these opening scenes gripping enough to hook a reader. And it’s no wonder. A story’s beginning is hard. And important.

Your story’s beginning is the sales pitch for your entire story. Doesn’t matter how slam-bang your finish is, doesn’t matter how fresh your dialogue is, doesn’t matter if your characters are so real they tap dance their way off the pages. If your story’s beginning doesn’t fulfill any of a number of requirements, chances are readers won’t get far enough to discover your story’s hidden merits.

Unfortunately for us harried writers, no surefire pattern exists for the perfect opening. However, most good beginnings do share a couple traits. Following are ten.

1. Don’t Open Before the Beginning

Mystery author William G. Tapley points out,

Starting before the beginning… means loading up your readers with background information they have no reason to care about.

Don’t dump your backstory—however vital to the plot—into your reader’s lap right away. No one wants to hear someone’s life story the moment after meeting him.

2. Open With Characters, Preferably the Protagonist

Even the most plot-driven tales inevitably boil down to characters. The personalities that inhabit your stories are what will connect with readers. If you fail to connect with readers right off the bat, you can cram all the action you want into your opening, but the intensity and the drama will still fall flat.

3. Open With the Hook

Every story begins with a hook, the first domino, which, when knocked over, starts the chain of dominoes tumbling. This catalyst is the moment your story officially begins, and it should also be the first moment of high interest. Use that to your advantage and get right to the point.

4. Open With Conflict

No conflict, no story. Conflict doesn’t always mean nuclear warheads going off, but it does demand that your characters be at odds with someone or something right from the get-go. Conflict keeps the pages turning, and turning pages are nowhere more important than in the beginning.

5. Open With Movement

Openings need more than action, they need motion. Motion gives readers a sense of progression and, when necessary, urgency. Whenever possible, open with a scene that allows your characters to keep moving, even if they’re just walking down the street.

6. Open With a Question

Unanswered questions fuel intrigue; intrigue keeps the reader’s interest. If you can present a situation that immediately has your reader asking questions, you’ve significantly upped the odds that he’ll keep reading.

7. Anchor Reader to Avoid Confusion

As a caveat to #6, make sure you have your readers asking the right questions. You want to give them enough information so they can ask intelligent, informed questions, not “What the heck is going on here?!” As soon as possible, anchor them with the pertinent facts: who the characters are, what the current dilemma is, etc.

8. Establish the Setting

Modern authors are often shy of opening with description, but a quick, incisive intro of the setting not only serves to ground the reader in the physicality of the story, but also to hook their interest and set the stage. In Worlds of Wonder, David Gerrold explains that opening lines “that hook you immediately into the hero’s dilemma almost always follow the hook with a bit of stage setting” and vice versa.

9. Orient Readers With an “Establishing” Shot

Anchoring the reader can often be done best by taking a cue from the movies and opening with an “establishing” shot. If done skillfully, you can present the setting and the characters’ positions in it in as little as a sentence or two.

10. Set the Tone

Because your story’s beginning sets the tone for your entire book, you need to give readers accurate presuppositions about the type of tale he’s going to be reading. Your beginning needs to set the stage for the inevitable denouement—without, of course, giving it away.

If you can nail all ten of these points in your story’s beginning, your readers are likely to keep the pages turning all the way into the wee hours of the morning!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is the best part of a strong story’s beginning?

10 Ways to Strengthen Your Beginning

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. When I started writing my own material (this was maybe after 3 years of fanfiction and I still dabble occasionally), I LOVED back stories. I’d have a lengthy prologue (between 3 and 8 pages, though I haven’t read in the other two in a few years), showing what happened to them in either their first life (the following story was about what happened to their reincarnation and how they will eventually fulfill a prophecy or something like that) or what life was like before all hell breaks loose.
    These days, I don’t do that nearly as much.
    In fact I find that the hardest part to write is the middle of the story where I’m losing steam/interest and it lags a little… that’s often the part I dread revising the most

  2. I love backstories, and origin stories are particular joys for me. But the trick is always to sow the into the story in a way that is both interesting and essential – two points on which far too many prologues fall short.

  3. >.< I was sure I was right when I told a friend of mine she was commiting a crime by putting on the background (through flashback) of a character she only mentioned twice! :P This was VERY helpful! xoxo M.

  4. Yes, it’s always best to establish the character *first,* before asking readers to forebear through our backstory.

  5. I agree a 100% 😛

    Too bad my friend doesn´t -_-” I´ll insist! Haha

    Thank you!

  6. Thank you. You comments have led me to re-think my opening and move it on by a couple of months in my story time. I realise I can visit those months later and fill in the gaps as necessary.

  7. @Pat: Beginnings can be extra tough. But nothing beats finagling one to perfection!

  8. Thanks for this post! Good guide to go by and answered some questions I had been considering lately. I’m almost done with the first draft of my book and am going to be revising it, changing the beginning, and starting a new book, so this is really going to come in handy very soon.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Beginnings are always the trickiest parts. They have so many parts we have to balance – we have to do it brilliantly, or readers will be long gone. No pressure, or anything! 😉

  9. I usually can’t write the opening first. It happens, but not very often anymore. I snippet from here and there and then start pulling it together from the mess, but when I do get a good head of steam, I usually find myself mid-story now, writing through a good ways, backing up and writing the opening, then finishing out to the end.

    It makes it a lot easier to see what a reader really needs to know at the start. I figure the key thing about openings is to get started then come back later and clean it up. I do like them though.

    But right where you pick up steam in the middle, I bog down due to my “plot must emerge naturally” dilemma. Openings and picking up steam to head into the end are the awesome parts for me. The middle, not so much.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The reason authors so often struggle with the “saggy” middle of the story is simply because a proper understanding of structure is missing. Once we know how to structure that Second Act (the emphasis in the first half is all about the character’s reaction to the First Plot Point; the emphasis in the second half is all about the character’s personal revelation at the Midpoint, which allows him to stop reacting and start acting), the plotting becomes much easier.

      • I understand that whole concept (and a host of other structures available); it just kills the writing for me. My middles don’t sag; the second half of them are just pulling teeth to figure out all the logical steps of getting from my story setup to its conclusion. I usually have a decent idea of the climactic element going into a story. When I don’t, writing to it is a whole lot easier because I don’t have to meet my logic test.

        I have literally no preference between analytical and creative thinking, so I have to mentally satisfy both before moving on past a set of words.

        I’m pretty good at throwing balls in the air, and I’m good at catching them. I just dislike figuring out how to juggle them so they reach the right spot for the catch. Juggling them, fun. Figuring out how to juggle them, headache inducing.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I love the balance between logic and creativity. I’m in the middle of outlining right now, and I’m having a blast figuring out how my creative ideas can logically hang together in the way that best presents the story. I work best when I can do the logic work up front, but other writers do better when they do it retroactively in the revision stages.

          • Yeah. I’m kinda in the do-it-for-just-the-next-portion camp. Like driving down a highway at night. I see to the end of the headlights and if I can’t see what’s in the headlights, I’ve got to either stop and percolate (creative) or stop and plot (logic).

  10. I love those points… because the first time in my life, they confirm that my beginning isn’t bad.

    It’s like the domino effect, startin with a statement about the main character’s thoughts (questions there), continues with a movement which leads to a conflict… and it’s all turning around the protagonist.

    I feel much encouraged.

    And a fun fact: previously, my mistake was starting this story at the middle. I thought it really WAS the beginning but it soon become obvious it’s only the dessert and we haven’t eaten the previous meals. Now, it seems to be correct.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve done that before: starting in the middle, only to realize that I was missing out on a ton of good stuff previous to that point. We have to remember to stay flexible and do whatever’s best for the story.

  11. Can’t think of a comment, too busy taking notes from this post

  12. When and how should I introduce my theme, should I in an ominescent narration simply ‘say’ it, or should be cryptic and let the readers figure it out, or maybe I should show it in character’s behavior/speech.

    My theme is like an ugly bride that I have to show to my parents, she’s ugly because she’s about the mundane subject of Climate Change (what can be boringer?) and my parents (the readers) seem rather picky with this bride who I love with a heroic zeal.

    • I mean, not only is it boring, the moment people realize that I am talking about Climate Change they become politically defensive.

      Should I maybe just leave the first chapter as a platform for the readers to be familiar with my characters and have my characters suddenly dump out what they are doing when the readers are already interested?

  13. What about opening with backstory that isn’t your character’s life story? Let’s say, for example, in LOTR, they give you a brief history of the ring and the war that defeated Sauron. In a way it’s like a prologue that introduces the world to the reader. Are these effective, or is LOTR the exemption?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      LOTR isn’t necessarily an example we’d want to follow today. The litmus test is always: Is this interesting? Is this going to pique reader curiosity and make them ask a specific question, the answer to which they’ll read on to discover?

      • I see what you mean. Thanks! I always have trouble with the beginning because I feel that it has to be powerful and interesting, but at the same time, has to give off just enough information about your story, your world, so that readers aren’t left confused halfway through. Like how they say if you’re going to introduce aliens and spaceships, introduce them at the start so that your readers know they’re reading a SF book.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Beginnings *are* tricky because we have to juggle so many elements. What we’re always aiming for is an incredibly interesting scene that also allows us to introduce all the important elements. You might find these posts useful as well.

  14. Thank you for this article! It couldn’t have come at a better time! I am rewriting my beginning and it is soooo hard. So much harder than I thought it was going to be. At first I jumped into action pretty much right away. Then based on some of your other articles, I thought it best to start a little differently and work up to some bigger action. I wanted to establish the protagonist and her mom a little bit first so the reader cares more when mom dies at the 1st major plot point and everything changes for main character. Now I’m not sure if I started ‘before the beginning’ and have enough of a hook. It is a sci fi/ fantasy and I want the reader to know that something otherworldly is going on. So much to get into those first pages! It’s such a hard balance of getting enough info to the reader so they have a sense of what’s going on but not so much that they’re bogged down with it or are bored. Any thoughts on opening sentences? Do you prefer character or setting or both in 1st sentence? Again, thank you. You’re articles are phenomenal and make me really delve deep to become a better writer.

  15. Jim Arnold says

    I appreciate how you opened this article. I was always afraid that if I don’t like doing something concerning writing or feel strained about it, I am not meant for writing. But if you can not like the first fifty pages to open a story, I have hope about my abilities.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One of the most important things any of us can realize about writing is that it’s hard. If something feels hard, it probably means you’re on the right track! You might be interested in this recent post on “making writing easier”: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/make-writing-your-novel-easier/

      • Robyn Ravenna says

        Bless you K.M. Weiland for your generosity in sharing your amazing and talented insights with other writers. I have gleaned so much from your posts, articles and books. A thousand thanks and ten thousand blessings on you.

        Robyn Ravenna, South Australia

  16. Anne Cartwright says

    I don’t seem to have a problem with the beginning at all; am I odd? I can “see” and “hear” the scene almost like a film, and then I imagine myself telling it to other people. It’s the middle I have real difficulties with. The action deteriorates to mundane tedium and no amount of rewriting seems to spice it up.

    To sum up: a great beginning, a pretty good ending- should I just join the two together for a short story?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      No, you’re not odd, just lucky. :p

      As for your story, nothing wrong with using it for a short story if you’re not happy with your ideas for a lengthy Second Act.

  17. K.M., I am about 35,000 words into my historical novel and starting to look back at my beginning. You and others have the opinion that you should grab them by the throat at the get go. I have been reading a lot by English writers in my genre, and they seem to “ease” in the story, which I have done, introducing my protagonist and the important people in his life. Is my story doomed? My plan is to continue writing and if the beginning needs to be changed I will address that when I do one of the last edits. Thank-you for this forum to ask these questions, and share with others. Regards

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely not doomed. Although it’s important to open with a strong hook, the entire First Act, and especially the first half of the First Act (until around the 12% mark in the story) is all about setup. It’s about introducing characters, settings, and themes, so you have in them place for the plot payoffs in the Second Act.

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  3. […] a ton of stuff the beginning of your story has to do and do well, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that perhaps the single most important one of these […]

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