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In the beginning: How to start your story


       Brainstorm for different ways to kick things off

Begin at the beginning.  Easier said than done.  How often do writers lament - I have a great story in my head, I just don't know where to begin? The simple answer is to begin at the moment in the story when things go to hell.

Many writing teachers call this the inciting incident.  Though there are many ways to describe it, the "hell" moment is the point at which your story takes off.  Filmmakers have a term for it - "in media res", a Latin phrase which means "in the midst of things."  It is not two weeks before your character loses his job, it's the moment he hears "You're fired."  It's not when the bad guys are planning their terrorist act, it's when the bomb goes off.  Sure, many stories begin with characters in their ordinary world, but if you look closer, the core of the story problem is there, usually mixed with character issues connecting the character's arc with the story arc -  still the most effective approach to storytelling.

So how do you determine the perfect moment to begin your story?  Having an outline helps, and knowing your characters inside and out will offer a number of possibilities.  The most important thing to keep in mind is how best to entice a reader to keep turning pages.

Imagine your story as a movie trailer.  Which scene would start the trailer, grabbing people's attention and making them want to find out what happens?  This should lead you to a solid first scene.

After you've figured out where to begin, you must determine how.  There are as many possible openings as there are stories, but let's look at a few.

The Jump-Start opening.  This is the story that opens with a bang and hits the ground running.  In Angels and Demons, Dan Brown starts with a real grabber:  "Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own."  This type of opening works great for thriller, suspense, and adventure stories.

The Straight-to-the-Point opening.  Beginning your story by plainly stating what it's about is a great way to start if you can make it work.  This will draw the reader in immediately and establish what type of story it is.  J.R.R. Tolkien did this well with the first line in The Hobbit:  "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."  This can work for just about any genre of story, but must be handled with care.

The Dialog opening.  Characters talking can be a great way to interest a reader, causing them to wonder who's talking and what they're talking about.  In his excellent short story, The Other Village, Simon Strantzas lures us in with one simple line of dialog, "Something different, you want?"  Opening this way works with a number of story types, but be careful to make the dialog important and compelling.

The Location opening.  Many writers, especially novelists, choose to begin their story by depicting a unique or important location, using evocative descriptions to paint an unforgettable picture.  John Steinbeck began his novel Of Mice and Men this way: "A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green."

The Mood opening.  Creating a mood is paramount to writing a good story.  Often it is a good idea to establish the mood immediately.  Clive Barker is a master at this, as evidenced in his brilliant horror story, "Dread", which opens:  "There is no delight the equal of dread."  There is no doubt what type of story is to follow and what emotions will be aroused in the reader.  These types of beginnings are effective in the aforementioned horror genre and any type of story thick with sensory details and emotion.

There are many more ways to start your story, but these are a few of the most common.  If you're still having difficulty, try a few out and see what works best.  Often, this leads to ideas you hadn't expected, many better than you originally had in mind.

Ultimately, your story will tell you where it needs to start, but it will never get the chance if you don't first write it out.  So, sit down and get writing.  Happy beginnings!


  • -unknown- 5 years ago

    This is great! It has made my short story writing ever so easier.

  • Nurdoidz 5 years ago

    Wow. Where was this article all my life? I'm serious, the beginning is the hardest part of a story for me.

  • erika 4 years ago

    Thank you for this article.