Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How to Begin A Story

by Stephanie Morrill

A writer asked me, "I always know exactly how I want the story to play out, but I never know how to begin. I always get stuck with how to introduce the topic to the reader. Do you have any tips for me?"

Great question, because if the opening of your novel stinks, it's doubtful that many will make it to the wonderful middle and end that you've written. But what makes for an effective opening to a story?


Here are some guidelines:

Begin with your main character and tell the scene from their point of view.

I'm sure we all have books we love that don't do this, but especially if this is early in your writing journey, I encourage you to start with your main character. Readers want to bond with your main character right away.

Start with your main character being active

They don't have to be saving the world or anything, but starting with them in motion can make a big difference. Here's how these great books did it:

Hunger Games starts with Katniss sneaking out to hunt.

The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen starts with Macy at her boyfriend's house, helping him pack up for Brain Camp.

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld begins with Tally sneaking out to New Pretty Town.

Start with them in their homeworld ... with a twist

You'll notice in those examples that these main characters are all doing something familiar to them. Katniss regularly goes hunting. Macy is assisting her longtime boyfriend. Tally has been sneaking out at night, we're told, since she was 12. 

But also there's something unique about this time. Either they know something is about to happen - Katniss knows the reaping is that night and Macy's boyfriend is about to leave for the summer - or something has just happened. Tally's best friend has just been made "pretty" so he's been taken to live in New Pretty Town, and for the first time she's alone.

Pick a moment that exposes their longings...

Your novel is about your character's growth. If they didn't need to change, we wouldn't care about their journey. In Tangled, before we can appreciate Rapunzel's freedom, we need to see her in captivity, longing to be free. In Cinderella, before we can appreciate her riches, we need to see her in rags, dreaming of a better life.

So when you're figuring out the best starting place, you'll want to consider what kind of goals your characters have and how you can give your readers some context for them.

...and shows their strength

You also need to give us a reason to want to spend the next 80,000 words with this character. I love the start of Cinderella because of how beautifully it showcases Cinderella's strengths - despite being oppressed and living in a home full of cruel, selfish women, Cinderella still has joy. She wakes up singing in the mornings! Her joy makes us feel the stepmother's cruelty all the more acutely, I think.

Figure out what disturbs your character's world, then back the story up slightly

Writers tend to fall into two categories with beginnings - either they take their sweet time getting to the real action of the story, or they plop us down right after the main character's world has been rocked and they don't give the reader enough context.

If you're the first type or writer, it's possible you'll write your book, then cut the first two chapters. If you're the other, you might need to add a couple chapters to the first part of your manuscript. There's nothing wrong with finding your real beginning after you've written the end.

I find it helpful to think through what disturbs my character's homeworld, what invites her to change. In the book I'm working on now, my main character's world is disturbed when her best friend finds out she's moving. It packs a punch for the main character, Ellie, because her entire social life is tied to this one friend. I knew I needed to establish the dynamics of their group and friendships before the reader could grasp why Lucy moving was such a big deal.

What about you? How do you feel about the beginning of your story? Do you have a favorite opening scene, either in a book or movie?

35 comments:

  1. I can't wait to read another Stephanie Morrill book!

    My main character's world is rocked pretty quickly, like, toward the end of the first chapter. I've been wondering how much time readers need to get to know her before things change, and if I've allowed enough time. But at the same time, the beginning as it's currently written immediately lets readers hear her voice and see her personality, and I'm worried about weakening that if I change things. I guess I said all that to say I have some thinking to do!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And as for one of my favorite story openings, Little Women has a good one. Right away, you get a glimpse at each sisters' personality.

      Delete
    2. Aww, thanks, Anna! I'll be excited to announce it :)

      I haven't read Little Women yet, but it's on my shelf. I've seen a couple of the movies and love the story.

      Delete
    3. You HAVE to read Little Women and Good Wives (Little Women part 2)! They are my new favorites!

      A couple of my favorite book beginnings are from Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter and The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. In Freckles the first chapter has the main character's backstory in the form of a job interview. In The Scarlet Pimpernel it doesn't start from the main character's POV but shows how the Scarlet Pimpernel works and how sly he is.

      Delete
  2. Hmm...no particular opening has stuck in my memory, but I know I've read several amazing ones.

    As for my opening, I start with an introduction which quickly introduces you to my MC and her world. Well, after that...*guiltily looks back in her document* when the story actually starts, it doesn't really start with an action. Hmm. Actually, re-reading my introduction and first chapter, I'm not liking it half as much as I did when I wrote it! Now I just have to see if I have time to start working on it today or not...xD

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lol, Amanda. I've done that same thing before :)

      Delete
  3. Beginnings and endings are the hardest part for me. I have a rough idea of where the story starts and ends, but I can't find the right first sentence to open it all, and finding that FINAL sentence is twice as hard, because those two sentences have to do so much work! :P The first one has to hook the reader, and the last one has to set them down gently, but finally.

    Just a question -- are there any writing contests coming up soon? :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm the same way about my opening and final sentences. I usually don't even start writing until I have THE first line.

      And, yes, we'll be doing another writing contest right after Thanksgiving. Glad you asked!

      Delete
    2. *whew* I'm glad I'm not alone. ;)

      Hooray! I'll be looking forward to it!

      Delete
    3. My first two WIPs started with a whiz-bang of a first line. I really like that they came to me that way and hope that continues. :)

      Delete
  4. This is such a great post!
    I have SO many books that I just absolutely adore along with their opening scenes. I think two that have really effected my writing are Ella by Gail Carson Levine and The Voyage of The Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis. I love these two so much because they immediately jump into the story and introduce the characters and they do so with such humor and grace, you are just immediately hooked. And both books keep you hooked!
    As for how I feel about my opening, I have to say I really do love it. And I say this thinking of the thousand beginnings I wrote that I hate now and hated then. I am not so sure about the humor (I am always laughing at my jokes and realizing no one else is) but I have to say I am happy at how I hopped into the story. It is so fun thinking of that day by the way! This is my DREAM STORY that I was too afraid to try out until the 100 4 100. I am now at the beginning of chapter four and wow! It feels AMAZING!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, how wonderful, Leorah! It feels like magic when that happens, I think :)

      Delete
  5. This might be kind of weird, but, even though I do have trouble with beginnings, middles have always come as the hard part for me. I always have awesome ideas for the beginning (and sometimes the end too) but after a few chapter my creative juices sort of run out. I've found that just sitting down and making myself write helps a lot(which is one reason why I'm really enjoying 100 for 100), but it's still hard to keep this ideas coming.

    One of my favorite book openings is from The Hobbit. I love how with just one sentence J.R.R Tolkein plops you into the story world *and* makes you wonder at the same time. It's just fantastic.

    Oh ya! Stephanie, I got my hands on a copy of Me, Just Different last week, and I enjoyed it immensely! I can't wait to read the next one. :)

    -Abby

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Aww, thanks, Abby! I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

      And I'm the same way, actually. I've written lots of beginnings, but I usually run out of steam when I hit the middle.

      Delete
  6. My first finished story I know needs some work because the first chapter seems to drag a little. Same thing for my wip I'm almost finished with.
    I do have a couple other wip's going right now though, and I think the beginnings are actually right for a change, aside from a few minor adjustments.
    Favorite beginning? Hmm, toughy. I read way too much and watch way too much tv to pick one.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I think I do a pretty good job at beginnings, but what I really struggle with is knowing when to end the story.

    The Last Thing I Remember has an amazing opening scene. You get a grasp of the back story as the MC remembers it. It is just really great : )

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can never do endings. I always fall flat on my face with them.

      Delete
    2. I love that book! Yeah, its opening was great. :D I have a hard time with endings too. :P soo many loose ends...

      Delete
    3. I agree, endings are hard. I always think I'm super close to finishing ... and then it takes me, like, 3 days to write the last scene or two.

      Delete
  8. My problem is I start out with a great general story idea, tap out a great beginning, but then have NO IDEA where I want my characters to end up, or how exactly I want my story to end. :P

    What I sometimes like to do when I start a new story (and what I've done with my WIP) is give a quick glimpse at what the bad guy's doing, to make the reader wonder WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN? WHO'S THAT GUY? WHAT'S HE DOING? before plopping them into the MC's (temporarily) peaceful world. ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That technique can work really well, especially in certain genres. Like murder mysteries often start with the murder, then we meet the protagonist.

      Delete
  9. Also, a question: What happened to weeks one and two on the 100 for 100 word count tracker? They're just. . . gone. :S

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ugh. Thank you for telling me, Dakota. I restored the data, and I've locked the spreadsheet for edits while I take some time to figure out how to solve this issue. (On Sunday, someone had gotten in there and deleted a bunch of names.)I'll send out a follow-up email when I have it open for edits again.

      Delete
  10. I hope its okay if I share the beginning of my W.I.P
    "People say that hate is a strong word ; and Maybe that’s why it was the perfect word to describe the way I felt about all of the other things that were eating into me lately. Like my mother, Dad's lasagna, and the mailman. Especially, the mailman. "

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. sorry I meant to ask if it was an okay begining

      Delete
    2. I just LOVE that beginning, Kim!! "Especially the mailman." OOOOOHHH! Nice! (Sorry, it's just so incredible...)

      Delete
  11. Ack! Beginning a novel is my WORST moment. I'm such a perfectionist and I desperately want the first line to be *right*. I'm learning to go back and fix up later. But I wish I'd had these blog posts to read when I *started* writing!!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks! This is at a great time, as I've just finished my first complete first draft (yay!) and I'm now starting a new story.
    I'm now thinking I might rewrite the first 2,000 words...

    ReplyDelete
  13. Awesome post Stephanie!
    I think so many people (including me) have trouble with this!
    The beginning is sooooooo important if you want to interest the reader! I hate writing beginnings because I never know where to start! Especially when your mind is hurdling ideas at you!
    Thanks so much!

    ReplyDelete
  14. This post was really helpful, Stephanie! I usually spend a lot of time with the beginnings, and this will help next time (I just have to finish this novel first...) :)

    As for favourite beginnings, I can't name any specific book, but I love it when the author simply drops you in the middle of action. In fact, I know that it's a bad habit, but if a book starts with some long painting the scenery, I simply jump it, which shows how really important the beginning is. It's horrible writing them.

    Thanks again!!!

    Alina

    ReplyDelete
  15. This is a great post I always get stuck on the start after that I am usually okay.I have a bad habit of start in the middle and then write a openign.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thanks, Stephanie, this post is great. One point I really took away is the one about starting in their homeworld...with my last two manuscripts I jumped right in the middle of things and now I'm wondering if that was too soon (of course I'm pretty prone to second-guessing things these days what with wanting to enter the Genesis). :)

    ReplyDelete
  17. This post was Super Helpful, thank you Stephanie.
    I'm having a hard time conveying my heroin's strength. Her strength is great self control and self mastery, but I can't seem to shape a scene that conveys that extraordinary quality. I've tried contrasting her to a friend who is completely opposite, and putting her situations that demand self control ... but it's not coming across the way it should. Any Suggestions?
    As always, thank you for the work you put into this blog, it makes a world of difference for young writers like me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oooh, tough one. I wouldn't obsess over making sure the quality is shining through. Going back to the Cinderella example, we haven't seen her being abused yet, so we don't fully appreciate her amazing ability to wake up with joy and hope in her heart. So I guess my advice would be to make sure the strength is there ... but don't feel like the reader MUST walk away from that scene thinking, "Wow, this character has great self control."

      Does that make sense?

      Delete

Disagreement is welcome but rudeness is not. We ask that you please be considerate of each other. If we find your comment mean-spirited or inconsiderate, we reserve the right to remove it from our website.