Thursday, December 5, 2013

Where to Start Your Story

"Your story really starts in the fifth paragraph," I said. "Everything that comes before that is backstory, but this," I pointed, "this particular sentence is where something changes, where the excitement begins. Take out those first four paragraphs, and I'll show you where to weave bits of them back in to the rest so that your reader has exactly enough information." 

Our second son is applying to colleges right now, and one prestigious film program that he'd love to attend requires a three-page short story as part of the application. He had a fascinating idea for the story, and after he drafted it, he gave it to me to look it over. As I read, his writing impressed me, but I immediately knew how he could make the story a thousand times better. I told him so.

He made the changes I suggested, and guess what? I was right (always a banner moment for a mother of teenagers).  He then asked me how I knew where the story should really start.

"What you did is very common," I answered. "Every writer I know struggles with getting the beginning exactly right. But knowing where to start and where to end--those are key skills for any storyteller."

Even Hemingway acknowledged this weakness--and I'm not even sure it IS a weakness, as long as we realize that the first pages of any story we write often should be discarded eventually. When we fill those first, fresh pages with words, we're just getting warmed up. We're articulating what we, the writers need to know about our plots, our settings, and our characters. We're finding our voice. We need to get the backstory out on paper, to make it flesh--as long as we know that we then need to be subtle about when to let that flesh show. 

When I was nine, I desperately wanted to read The Hobbit, but I couldn't get past the first few pages. I tried several times, not giving up because all my friends were reading it, and I wanted to be in on the secret. Finally--and I don't know where I got the idea to do this--I skipped the first chapter and started reading the second chapter, whereupon I was instantly hooked and got through the rest of the story with ease and huge enjoyment. Later, when I was fully invested in the world of Middle Earth, I went back and read that first chapter. 

Once I finished The Hobbit, I started The Lord of the Rings, and encountered the same problem. But this time, I skipped the first chapter almost immediately--and later, when I was evangelizing non-stop to others about the series, I'd counsel them, "Skip the first chapter until you're really into the story. Then go back." 

But admissions officers--and many of today's readers--don't have that kind of patience (nor should they, in the case of the admissions officers). And most of us writers don't have the prestige of a last name like "Tolkien" to persuade readers to stick with us through an avalanche of information that they don't yet care about knowing. In a world of ever-decreasing attention spans, we need to hook our readers right away. And it can be a little, subtle hook; it just needs to be an effective hook. I recently read an article in which the author wondered how Tolkien would have revised his manuscript after getting feedback from today's agents and editors. Would Gandalf storm through Frodo's door on page one, demanding, "Is it safe?" Maybe so. 

What's the trick to finding your beginning? First of all, don't worry about it while you're drafting. Anxiety over where and how to begin will keep you from actually starting. But once you're through that first draft, you can go back and fix things. Remember what Anne Lamott says--it's literally infinitely easier to revise a [bad] draft than a nonexistent draft. 

Second, read other great, recently written openings of both short stories and novels and dissect them. (I specify "recently written" because writing an opening the way Tobias Smollett or Agatha Christie would probably isn't going to fly these days.) What's the balance of dialogue and narrative? How quickly are you immersed in the voice and style and tone of the story? Read good writing and copy it (not literally, of course). That's not wrong; great writers have been doing just--reading and imitating--for centuries. 

Third, many times you need other eyes to see the real beginning. You've created this world. You think you know everything about it--but you don't. You're too close to it, like a mother who can't see the defect in her precious child that is painfully obvious to everyone else. Ask a critique partner and another writer and someone who reads a lot to read your first few pages. Likely, they'll point to a moment where the world changes, or where the protagonist is in trouble or encounters something new. We may not have noticed the subtle shift in the narrative, but fresh eyes often will. 

Fourth, be conscious of your story's arc. An arc is more or less symmetrical, so look to your end to know how your beginning should be shaped. (And sometimes the reverse is true.) In the case of my son's draft, his last sentence revealed a clever twist that shed light on the entire story--so he worked to make sure the beginning would allow that ending to pay off as satisfyingly as possible. 

Fifth, don't give up. Keep working on it until it's right. If it takes twenty revisions, so be it. If writing well were easy, everyone would be doing it. I'm a big knitter, and I know from hard experience that beginnings are challenging (though there are challenges and pitfalls all along the way). I'm getting used to the yarn; I'm setting the foundation of the pattern. There's a lot of ripping out and starting over; it's just part of the process. Writing is the same way. We may be tempted after a lot of struggle to just leave it as it is, and hope that others won't notice the flaws. Trust me: they will. Get your beginning exactly right, so that your story has the very best chance of being read all the way to the very end. 


  1. I've been a bit worried about this with my current manuscript. Problem is, the "inciting incident" in my story isn't an incident, it's a state of being. That needs to be portrayed. That needs to change, etc, and does within the first oh, twenty pages. But without knowing where my character is starting out from, I'm not sure how to convey to the reader why it's importing he's going somewhere else. Know what I mean?


    1. Sarah, this is doable. I totally agree with Mark (below), who is totally allowed to comment. In my next post on this topic, which I'll put on my personal blog in a couple of days, I'll talk more about the hook and elaborate on Mark's excellent comment.

  2. Can daddies comment here?

    In my narrative cosmology, the setup includes a hook, an inciting incident and a plot turn. The setup occupies the first quarter of the story. The hook starts with the first word, the inciting incident occurs halfway through setup, and the first plot turn is the climax.

    The trick with the hook is to introduce the protagonist and the world in a stable condition. Stable doesn't mean still. If your protagonist is a werewolf-slaying toddler, show her hunting werewolves while keeping her diaper up. In any case, let us see what she's like before she collides with the antagonist force. When the inciting incident occurs, the audience should be able to predict how the protagonist will react on collision. We should also have a strong sense of the stakes. This is exactly what Tolkien achieves in both The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. Yes, he wrote for an audience with more patience and stamina than we generally find today, so, yes, we often need to insert more action than he did, but the principle persists.

    1. Agreed, Mark. Thanks for the comment. I'd like to state for the record that I've developed much more patience and stamina as a reader than I had when I was nine. :D

    2. Good to hear.

      You're definitely right about the need for objective outside opinions on how a piece is taking off. I'm just worried about people skipping world and character to get to event. I also think that if people properly understand narrative structure they can save a ton of restructuring by focusing the beginning on setup for the conflict. But that's a planner strategy. People who write as much for their own surprise as for the reader's are likely to take the pleasurable but inefficient route.

  3. Looking forward to that post, Luisa! & Mark, your comment feels right. I did struggle to get into tolkein too, however. I liked it once I was in it, but. I don't want to create that barrier for a reader if I can help it. I guess my question would be, what is it about the way Tolkein handled his hook & storytelling @ the beginning that made it extra difficult? Because I read a lot of books that were "heavy" when. I was young, & loved them. Ivanhoe, for instance.