Where the Story Starts

In Craft on May 27, 2010 at 6:10 pm

A voice whispers in my ear about fire and how it can teach you lessons you might not want to learn. A setting unveils itself between my eyes: a broken, gaping fence revealing a muddy yard and a forlorn dog. Stories (well, mostly novels) come to me like tiny, cryptic visions promising great things, but I must pin down their frail butterfly beauty and hope they remain beautiful.

We often struggle to find where the story really starts. A character in the present is grappling with a compelling back-story that competes for energy and attention in the front-story, whispering: “Pick me! I am your true starting place.”  Or we feel that urge to explain: See, first you need to know this and that and the other thing before you’ll join my characters on their journey.

The story starts where there is the most potential for conflict and change. Where, as the character emerges through the open door of a new fate, there is no turning back, change will be thrust upon them, and it will be painful and wondrous.

The story starts where there is little to no need for explanation, where the action is enticing and mysterious enough to draw us forward, tempted by the tiny morsels of intrigue.

The story starts at a juncture where your character cannot help but step out onto that tight rope, with no net below her, whether she does so of her own free will, or she is pushed.

I challenge you to start your stories at that dangerous, enigmatic edge of uncertainty, right in the middle of something that will transform your characters, and hopefully your readers.

  1. Great Advice. Just dropped an entire chapter and went straight for the throat of an action scene. It worked! I’m much happier with this beginning. It is doing everything it is supposed to do, introducing mystery, tone, character and genre.



  2. Definitely good advice. I especially like the vision I got after that first paragraph. 😉

    I have a feeling I will come back to this blog a lot in the coming months!

    Thanks for steering us in the right direction.

  3. K, and when you do come back, please remind me to practice what I preach.

  4. Stories should hit the ground running. If it just hits the ground and stays there perhaps the writer had begun in the wrong place.

  5. Good reminder. I usually end up chopping off the first few paragraphs (or even pages) of a new WIP. I let myself get it out of my system!

  6. Great advice! Especially about finding the point with the most potential for conflict and change. Unfortunately, I find that many aspiring writers start a story too soon — dumping info in the beginning that should really be parsed out across the first few chapters.

  7. India, I have the same process!

    Laurence, yes, aspiring writers and even some very well-tested writers do this. I think it can actually be very useful to do the info dump as a kind of prompt, and then clear it out and turn it into scene. I have written no less than 5 opening chapters on my novel…I keep trashing them when they just don’t work.

  8. For what it’s worth, after I finish a manuscript and set it aside, I go back and find the moment of change that kicks off the story in the first chapter (actually, other people usually point it out to me). I make that the opening, cut everything before it, find the most important tidbits of backstory and paste them in later where I can. That’s what works for me, anyway.

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