If you’ve ever struggled with preparing a presentation, someone has undoubtedly trotted out this advice:
Tell ‘em what you’re about to tell ‘em.
Then tell ‘em.
Then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.
Fiction isn’t that different.
But unlike nonfiction that explicitly tells us information, fiction shows us through characters, settings, conflict, and word choice. The order in which these elements are experienced by the reader implicitly communicates their meaning. They will feel it. If you don’t know how to start a story, everything will suffer.
What does this have to do with how to start a story?
A story’s beginning is your first opportunity to make your reader feel something. And that feeling will make them either want to turn the page or close the book.
Let’s make it the former, shall we?
Tell ‘Em What You’re About To Tell ‘Em
When it comes to our reader, the essential task of a story’s beginning is two-fold.
- To hook their interest so they want to keep reading
- To establish expectations for the story we are telling
It’s possible to accomplish one task and not the other, which doesn’t help you or your reader.
- If you hook them but don’t establish expectations, they will read on but will likely become confused or annoyed when the story doesn’t match what they expected.
- If you establish expectations but don’t hook their interest, they won’t read on and will never get to experience the amazing story you’ve written.
But when you can craft an opening scene that hooks and informs, you will win your reader. Check out my analysis of the opening scene for the 2014 film Whiplash which does a killer job of hooking the audience and establishing the story to come.
So, if we agree that the primary function of a story’s beginning is to hook a reader’s interest and set up expectations of what is to come, then the only way to truly craft a beginning is to know what is to come.
And this applies to more than just what happens in the story (i.e. the content genre)–it’s every aspect of the story. When it comes to crafting a beginning, consider the entirety of genre’s five-leaf clover.
Time. Depending on how long your story is will determine how much time you have to devote to a “beginning”. Is it a novel? A short story? A flash piece? Just knowing how long a story is will put expectations in a reader’s mind, and you need to be sure you’re delivering the hook and expectations in the right amount of time.
Structure. Typically we refer to structure as either arch plot or mini plot, but I encourage you to also consider things like multiple POVs, dual timelines, and narrative device (such as epistolary elements). If these elements are going to exist in your story it’s important to introduce them to the reader early, so they know what to expect.
Reality. This is the world in which your story takes place and the rules of reality it follows.
- Factualism is what actually happened in the past.
- Realism is what is possible according to the rules of the known universe.
- Fantasy is what is possible according to rules of your fictional universe, be it Middle Earth or a galaxy far far away; it’s your job to establish the rules for your reader and follow them.
- Absurdism is a universe in which the rules change, or there are no rules; the absence of factualism or realism is often part of the Big Meta Why of an absurd story.
Whatever your reality genre, it’s important that you introduce it to the reader early. This is not to say you have to do every scrap of world-building in chapter one (please don’t), but if your reality is not realism, you should at least hint at that early on. That way the reader isn’t confused or annoyed when a ghost appears in chapter five.
Style. This is very much how the story is told, and can include considerations like POV, narrative device, narrative drive, voice, word choice, sentence structure, even page formatting. It directly influences the reader’s experience and overlaps with and amplifies the other four genre leaves. Knowing the tone of the experience you want the reader to have will help you make specific decisions regarding your story’s style. Like reality, it’s important to choose a style (with intention) and introduce it to the reader early so they know what to expect. Deciding and demonstrating your style choice with clarity can be a great way to hook your reader.
Content. The content genre is what determines what happens in the story–the plot–and what it means–the controlling idea/theme. Every content genre is going to have a Four Core Framework made up of the Core Need, Core Values, Core Emotion, and Core Event. These elements work together to present the universally relevant change that takes place over the course of the story, demonstrating either a prescriptive (ends positively), cautionary (ends negatively), or win but lose/lose but win (bittersweet) ending.
In order for the reader to experience this change (and the meaning behind it) in a satisfying way, they must receive the information at the right time and in the right order. Change in a story must be experienced incrementally and sequentially. As this change occurs over the course of the story, the reader will experience the before, during, and after for that change–the beginning, middle, and end.
So with that in mind, we can narrow one of the major functions of a story’s beginning is to establish the before.
Establishing The Status Quo
The status quo is the way things are. But because this is a story, we know they won’t stay that way for long. So the beginning of the story needs to show the way things are as well as introduce the elements that hint at what is to come.
This means establishing the core life values that signal the core human need at stake in a crystal clear way. This will trigger subconscious expectations in the reader. They begin to anticipate what is to come, which creates narrative drive.
The primary way to establish life values is through conventions—these are a content genre’s selective and enabling constraints and includes the specific
- Forces of antagonism
- Character roles
- Catalysts/means of turning the plot
Conventions introduce the current life value (and set up reader expectations) that will shift in the first obligatory scene, the inciting incident. This shift pays off reader expectations, which evokes the core emotion. Getting the reader to feel the core emotion of the content genre is a great way to hook them AND introduce the kind of story your telling.
A Note About Plausibility
In order for a reader to immerse in your story, things need to make sense. This doesn’t mean they have to know everything or even understand everything they do know, but it means that you have to build a case for what happens in your story to be plausible. It’s possible and makes “sense” in context. You have to make us believe you! This applies to the content genre and the reality genre for your story.
Now some readers are never going to be able to make the leap because the level of buy-in required to suspend their disbelief is just not their bag. And that’s okay. Your job is not to convince everyone, but you’ll need to convince your target reader. This is why it is essential to know your (content and reality) genre conventions, in order to know what your target reader will expect and accept, or not.
When you are first learning how to start a story, these are the common things that will trip you up.
Not showing the before, just jumping to during and after. Change is most meaningful in context of how things used to be. Don’t negate the status quo by opening your story too late. Often writers think they have to jump into action because otherwise it will be boring. But the status quo does not mean “boring”. It’s full of unmet wants and needs! Pro tip — use specificity in the status quo to create interest.
No complications. Contrary to what you may think, the status quo doesn’t mean that “nothing changes”, it just means that the things that happen are not out of the ordinary. For example if the pipes burst for the fourth time this week, it’s chaos, but it’s still business as usual. The status quo includes the kinds of frustrations the protagonist is used to and something that can be resolved. It’s not the incident that prompts the problem/question of the global story.
Too much too soon. Even when you do establish your status quo and kick off your inciting incident, beware of moving the story too far too fast. You need to establish what is at stake but you don’t want to raise the stakes so high and extreme that the story has nowhere to go. This doesn’t mean every story needs to be a slow burn. Consider your target reader’s expectations for pacing and experiencing the core emotion. If you’re not sure, read in your genre more to find out.
Remember that the term “beginning” can apply to multiple units of story: the Beginning Hook, the first sequence (from opening line to inciting incident), the first scene/chapter, the first beat, the first sentence. Depending on where you are in your writing process will determine how granular you can go to lock these things in.
Because you can’t really know the specifics that your reader will need in the beginning until you know the ending. Your story’s beginning only functions in the context of the end. In fact, studying Core Events is a great way to better understand how to craft your beginning. These moments will often be mirror images.
Think about the Core Event for your genre and your specific story, then ask yourself: what is the thematic opposite of this moment? That is a great place to start your story.
So before you beat yourself up for struggling to craft your first chapter perfectly line by line, remember that you may not have the information you need until you see the story as a whole and know where it ends.
Sometimes you won’t completely know how to start a story until you have gotten to the end.
How to Start a Story: Putting It Into Practice
If you’re creating your first draft, by all means, consider what beginnings are designed to do–hook your reader and establish expectations for your story’s five-leaf genre clover–but don’t be afraid to just start with what you know. In higher levels of math there is a funny concept called [interpolate] — it’s a type of estimation, and sometimes that is the only way to figure something out. It’s only after you’ve taken a stab and gotten a result that you can interpolate something else.
If you’re evaluating a draft and revising, look at the overall experience you want your reader to have, and the ultimate payoff that you’re leading them to. How can you best set up this moment to be surprising yet inevitable? What does your reader need to know FIRST? Also, look closely at the value shift that occurs in the Core Event, as well as the final life value of the story’s Resolution. This can provide clues to your opening life value/status quo. Help your reader feel the change from beginning to end by making them as different as you can.
My favorite (least favorite) quote about writing:
You never learn how to write a book, you only learn how to write this book.
Your process will likely never be the same for every story, but by the time you’re done with your draft, you will have everything you need to craft your story’s kickass beginning.
For further study, here are links to the specific episodes of the Editor Roundtable Podcast where I examined story beginnings:
- It’s a Wonderful Life – Crafting the Beginning Hook in Sequences
- Guernsey Literacy – Establishing Life Values in the Beginning Hook
- Whiplash – Sets Up in Opening Scene
- Wolves of Karelia – Opening Scene Beat by Beat
- Silver Linings Playbook – Crafting An Intentional Beginning
- Blade Runner – A Cautionary Tale in Creating Subtext
- Brooklyn – Establishing Life Values Through Setting
- Mrs. Doubtfire – Establishing Plausibility