Hook, Line, and Sinker: How to Start Your Story
You have the story idea, a brief outline (or not), and enough motivation and/or preparation to place your fingers on the keyboard and think, Let's begin.
But how does one, in fact, begin a story? How do you select the perfect scene to situate your reader without putting him to sleep? It's easy to become overwhelmed by the sea of possible beginnings before having typed a single word. This article provides a list of different ways to begin a story, long or short, pointing out their respective advantages and disadvantages. The right beginning can give you just the push you need to send you flying into the world of your characters.
A prologue is a scene or chapter that pertains to the story without featuring your protagonist at the present time. It might show your hero as a child; it might show your antagonist plotting to take over the world; it might show a setting, a historical event, a natural catastrophe that occurs before the story starts. You know how at the beginning of a movie, the camera is zoomed in on a tiny detail before pulling out and revealing the larger picture? We're doing the opposite here.
The use of prologues has always been a subject of debate among writers for one major reason: when not used correctly, they can easily bore the reader. If you think of your prologue as a place to dump your backstory, you're likely to lose your audience. However, if you use it to set the mood of your novel before jumping into a slower, everyday events kind of opening, then (in my opinion) it is a perfectly appropriate beginning.
I'd like to split the action beginning into two categories.
First, we have the hero action beginning, which is similar to a prologue in that it all happens before the inciting incident. It's the fighting-a-bad-guy-atop-a-moving-train scene (think James Bond here), although it doesn't necessarily need to be gripping. It can also be the waking-up-daily-routine scene. Most importantly, it shows the hero doing what he knows best before being thrust into the story head first.
Second, we have the inciting incident beginning. Who said a set-up was necessary? By beginning with the inciting incident, you're cutting straight to the chase, throwing your hero headfirst into the story alongside your reader. Later on, you can always share glimpses of your protagonist's past. Beginning with action certainly has its perks: there is little risk of boring your reader when you start with a bang. However, you run the risk of confusing him, especially if it turns out that the initial action sequence was all a dream (!). But I'll talk about that a bit later.
In Medias Res
Imagine this: everyone is dead, or kidnapped, or heartbroken, or crying, or rushing into battle. Suddenly, snap! you flashback to the very beginning, and things start to make sense. It isn't starting at the end of the story, but in the middle, in its heart. It's leaving the reader breathless before they even understand what's going on. But then, before they can get too confused, you flashback to the beginning and tell the story chronologically. An example of this would be in Homer's Odyssey, which begins with most of the Odysseus' journey being already over. The story leading up to that point is told through flashbacks.
One of the advantages of this tactic is that the reader has something to look forward to. Once they reach the point in the story with which you began, he experiences a huge rush, a brand new wave of avidity to continue reading the story. Now, for the disadvantages, the major one being that suspense tends to be lacking throughout most of the story, since you already know where the characters will end up in a few chapters. Furthermore, the reader might end up feeling kind of cheated, similarly so when reading a story beginning with a dream.
Although in media res might seem similar to the action beginning, they are not quite the same thing. If you're unsure, ask yourself this question: Does the opening scene take place before or after the inciting incident? If it takes place before or during the inciting incident, it is the action beginning. However, in media res directly translates to "in the middle of things", and so it takes place after the inciting incident.
I've already complained a few times about the dream beginning; let me explain why. If the start of your story is full of action and suspense, the reader will want you to keep up the pace. Obviously, that's not always possible, but at least in the hero action beginning, all the jumping off buildings and car chases have actually happened. Finding out that it was all a dream comes with a feeling of having been ripped-off, which is of course something you want to avoid. In the end, it's always the writer's decision. If you believe that your story would benefit from beginning with a dream scene, then by all means, go ahead; but know the risks that come with such an opening. Some readers might close a book or delete the story from their inbox the minute the character wakes up.
Starting out with a flashback is a great way to introduce your character. An interesting anecdote that shows off a certain aspect of your character's personality gives us a peek into their past and their minds. We feel sympathy for them before they are even thrust into the story. Most importantly, we already start feeling a connection to them, a connection that builds up throughout the story until your reader is as much in love with your protagonist as you are. A strong foundation is a must if you want your reader to be fully invested in your story and characters, and a short flashback that shows the character in action is a good way to build it.
A prologue can be a flashback, although it isn't always one. The flashback gives a more personal feeling than the prologue does; the prologue creates space, whereas the flashback does the opposite. The character is looking back on a past experience, not living it.
A frame device is a story outside your main story, usually introducing a narrator who tells your main narrative to a listener or directly to your reader. It "frames" your story because it most often appears at the beginning and end, and sometimes in the middle. This technique could be interesting if you think it might be difficult for a reader to connect to the setting or characters, for example if you are writing historical fiction or fantasy. Since it does not take place in his reality, he might feel distanced from the story. Adding a separate story closer to his world will help him further relate to the characters or events in the main narrative.
One drawback of the frame device is that most readers will be more interested in the story where the action takes place than the "frame", going as far as perhaps skipping it altogether. Still, a frame device works well if there are major time jumps in your story as well as a remote setting, so it is a good tactic to consider.
An example of this would be in William Goldman's The Princess Bride, in which the main story, featuring pirates and princesses and Rodents of Unusual Size, is interspersed with scenes of the grandfather reading the story to his sick grandson.
An entirely separate article could be written on the subject of good opening lines and how to write them, but I thought they should be briefly mentioned while we're on the topic of beginning a story. The first and most important rule when crafting the first line of your story is to choose something unique, surprising, and interesting. In short, something that will hook your reader. Pointing out that the sky is cloudy is all right, but it's so much more startling to point out the small object plummeting through the clouds at top speed on a thoroughly uneventful Sunday afternoon. Be specific, be surprising. Once you believe to have found the right line, read it again with a reader's eye, a reader who has thirty other stories waiting to be read today and only has time to pick a few. If you believe he would choose yours, then you have found your opening line.
Hooking your reader is never an easy thing to do. By choosing the right beginning for your story, however, you can easily draw the reader in until they are fully submerged and unable to stop reading. Hopefully this article will help you decide how to start your story the next time you are ready to begin writing, or at the very least, give you an idea of the different possibilities. The perfect beginning can be the motivation the reader—or the writer!—needs to finish it. Now all you need is the perfect story.
- Do you often struggle with opening scenes?
- What is your favourite way to begin a story?
- What are your thoughts on prologues? On dream scenes? Are there any other "controversial" story beginnings?
- What kind of opening line will prompt you to read a story?