Monday, April 18, 2011

How and where to begin a story

How and where to begin a story is always - always - a hard question. I have gone back and changed the beginning for nearly every story I've written. In some cases, I have changed the beginning multiple times over the course of revision. It's enough to make one go batty!

The fact is, while there is no absolute rule, a story generally should begin with:
  • the main conflict, or some event that is a direct tributary of the main conflict
  • the main character
This may sound simple, but there's more to it than that.

I put the main conflict first because the main conflict is what drives the story forward, and sometimes the main conflict does not start in the same place that the main character does. Often in works where a murder mystery occurs and where the antagonist is mysterious, the book will start with a segment from the antagonist's point of view. This establishes the stakes, i.e. why exactly it is that a reader should care about what the main character is going to try to accomplish. Thus, when we get to the point where we're seeing the main character - likely doing something far more innocuous - we already get a sense of danger, anticipation, and most importantly, curiosity about what happens next. When, as in Janice Hardy's The Shifter, the character has a secret and her safety depends on nobody finding out about it, it makes perfect sense for the story to begin with a scene that results in this secret being discovered. That's what I would call a tributary scene, where the scene has its own natural stakes and drive, but delivers us into a place where the main conflict has clearly begun. For my current work in progress, the opening scene is one that shows the main character in a situation where it is important for him to pay attention to how he and his reputation are perceived by others, and then shows him being driven step by step off his comfortable ordinary concerns into a place of extreme danger, not because of the antagonist, but because of a contagious disease and the fear that the disease causes in people around him. The disease then becomes a driver that leads to a second major change, the death of a person in power, that propels the story toward its conclusion.

I'll return in a second to the issue of "being driven step by step off his comfortable ordinary concerns," but before I do that I want to address the question of backstory.

I often feel like choosing an opening scene for a story is like trying to create a see-saw. You have a big piece of story (it might even be your protagonist's whole life!) and you have to balance it on that opening scene. The part that chronologically precedes the opening scene is the backstory; the part that follows is the story. My rule of thumb is this:

Any piece of backstory that contributes directly to the identity of the protagonist, his/her culture, his/her self-awareness, and his/her basis for decision making can be portrayed indirectly through the protagonist's actions, and thus need not be included in the main story.

You may have noticed that I've arrived at "the main character" here.

Point of view is my ultimate ally in this. I think about it in the following terms: we judge our experiences and choose our actions on the basis of our personality and experience; thus, aspects of personality and experience can be included at points where our protagonist judges events, and chooses to act.

Here's an example from For Love, For Power of me doing the backstory thing with character judgment. Tagret (my main character) is going to a concert in the ballroom and one of his friends tells him that a new Cabinet member will be announced at the event, and that it might be Tagret's father. Here's how Tagret responds:

"It wouldn't matter," Tagret said. "My father wouldn't risk coming all the way back across the continent just for a Cabinet seat. He's too happy ruling Selimna where nobody can reach him." No Father meant none of Father's nasty surprises, and it would be preferable to keep him there, except that his last and worst surprise had been taking Mother with him.

The fact that Tagret's parents have been gone in a place so far that they can't come back to visit, that he hates his father and loves his mother, and that his father is important enough to consider a Cabinet seat not worth his while - all of these are important pieces of information for understanding the story as it continues. They are relevant here not because Tagret stops out of his ordinary concerns to muse on them, but because he's using them as a basis for his evaluation of the ongoing talk, and his response.

The fact is that an opening scene is strongest when it's a point of convergence. It shows conflict, it shows character, and it shows world (you didn't think I'd forget world, did you?) all at once in an active and engaged way. At the beginning of the story, a reader needs to be grounded in all three.

Grounding is absolutely critical in an opening scene. This is the word I give to basic reader orientation. The reader needs to be oriented - in some way - to the who, what, and where of the story. These elements can be presented in different sorts of balance, as when our protagonist is feeling disoriented and not knowing where he/she is, but they are very important. Imagine the main character as a runner, and you're about to be tied to that runner with a rope so you can follow along at (possibly breakneck) speed for the entire story. If you are going to be able to do this, you have to have your feet on the ground. Otherwise the runner will end up dragging you, spinning and yelling, until you manage to untie yourself and get away.

This is why starting in the middle of extreme action is not a good idea. Everett Maroon had a good post on this issue, here. In your opening scene, your main character should be doing something that requires him/her to indicate to readers who he/she is and what his/her normal concerns are. Until "normal" is established, the abnormal will have no meaning. Even if your character is disoriented, he/she can still try to make sense of what is going on around him/her in terms of what would be normal under ordinary circumstances.

Similarly, starting with simple introspection or gazing out at views is not a good idea either. It's not just that you've omitted the conflict. It's also that you've shackled yourself in terms of backstory and world. It's not only that people don't sit down and contemplate the basic normal conditions of their lives for no reason. It's that backstory and world belong in the background, and if there is nothing going on, they will necessarily take the front seat. By starting with your main character in a situation of conflict that leads directly to the main conflict of the story, you do several things:
  1. You give your main character an opportunity to introduce him/herself through action and judgment
  2. You give your main character the opportunity to introduce his/her world through action and judgment
  3. You orient readers and establish where the story will be going next
  4. You place the drive (the hook!) of the story front and center so readers can catch hold
As you consider where to place your opening scene, think of the two basic criteria of main conflict and main character - but if it's not obvious where that scene needs to happen, think through the more detailed questions. Ask yourself:
  • in what context could the main character best demonstrate his/her core motivations, possibly through indirect reference to backstory?
  • in what location the main character could best portray the conditions of his/her world that have the greatest bearing on the story as it goes forward?
  • in what situation would the significance of the main conflict to this character become most evident?
Once you've arrived at an answer, don't figure it's the answer. Be aware that it's perfectly okay to start in the wrong place - if I didn't realize that, I would never finish anything. In the first draft, the most important thing is to find a point of entry where the story starts telling itself to you. Then you can go back later and refine the placement of that scene so it does the most for the story as a whole. After all, sometimes you don't know where the story is going until you've finished it. And since a major point of an opening scene is to show, or foreshadow, where the story is going, you'll be able to place it a lot better if you actually know where the story is going!

Dive in and go for it. These are just a few things for you to think about as you prepare to do so.


  1. I like the point you make about it not being "the answer" and that it's ok to start in the wrong place. Beginnings are the hardest for me, and if I waited to get it right, I wouldn't get anything done. Thanks for writing about beginnings in more depth than the usual advice to "start with action"

  2. I usually have a good hook, but almost never start in the right place and end up changing the starting point. The advice that I have tried to follow is the advice that John Campbell gave to Isaac Asimov way back in the 1940s. When Asimov was struggling with the beginning of the story, he said, "You are almost certainly starting the story too early. Pick a point later in the story and start there. If necessary you can fill in the background through flashbacks."

    That doesn't always work, particularly if a story isn't time-linear (which some of mine are not). But, for instance, in "Take One For the Road" I stated the story at the moment in which the main character decides to tell the story he has been keeping to himself for decades, which is as late as I could imagine starting the story.

    I wonder if there is some kind of correlation between how late you start and how quickly you get to the main conflict. I have found that when I am struggling with an opening, if I push for a later and later scene, eventually I get something that feels right. In another recent story--one that didn't work so well, I realize I didn't start late enough. It was an s.f. murder mystery. I started with the lead detective being alerted to the crime, but I should have started with her already at the crime seen, actually looking at the body.

    I would also draw a distinction between where a novel starts and a short story. The "rule" that I've stated above works for short stories, but I don't know if it would work for a novel. In fact, it might be irrelevant since you have more space to carry out your work.

  3. T.S. Bazelli, I'm glad you found the post helpful. Thanks for commenting!

    Jamie, thanks for sharing some classic advice! I agree it can be good to start as late as you can get away with. I don't think the rule is irrelevant to novels. It's easy to get distracted from general principles of story by the "wiggle room" you have to work with in a novel. Very often the same kinds of principles apply.