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Where Should You Begin Your Story?

“Where Should You Begin Your Story?” by Joan Y. Edwards

Like a circle, sometimes we are in the dark about where to start our story. There’s no beginning, no middle, and no end in sight. Sometimes we need a little light to help us see where to begin a story. Today, with the help of a few masters in writing, I’d like to shed some light on:

Where Should You Begin Your Story? by Joan Y. Edwards

Below is my research from different books and articles and my own personal experience.

Use Opening Lines that stick to your reader’s mind and heart like a magnet:

Margaret Mitchell. Gone with the Wind

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton Twins were.”

Erich Segal. Love Story

“What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died?” 

            E. B. White. Charlotte’s Web  

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Jeff Kinney. Diary of a Wimpy Kid

“Saturday – Most people look forward to the holidays, but the stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas makes me a nervous wreck.”

These opening lines got to the heart of the real story of these books.

You are the expert on your story. You instinctively will know where to begin it. Listen to your voice and not to the voices in your head or to the voices of others that tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

In my critiques and reading of novels, young adult, adult, children, fiction and non-fiction, it seems to me that you start at the beginning of the “real” story. The real question is what is at the heart of your story. The opening lines listed above are the heart of the real story of those best-selling books.

Sometimes  writers use a lot of information in their first draft that readers don’t need to know. But this information was essential for you, the author, to get out of your head and down on paper.

When you revise this draft, you recognize the information that isn’t necessary. Therefore, you wisely pull it out and put it in a folder in case you think it needs to be placed in at a different part of your story. I call it my backup folder for the story.

Writers can tell instinctively when the story starts too soon or gives far more information than a reader needs. Try it when you hear the First Pages at a conference or when you’re reading a first page for critique.  This is an instinct. You can do this.

Suppose Charlotte’s Web began with Fern getting the eggs in and talking about seeing a spider in the barn. Would it have had the same impact as “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” I don’t think so.

In a study of Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell started before the war so readers could witness first hand the changes in people and their personalities because of war.

To me, where your story should begin depends upon your story and your purpose in telling it.

If your story is an article about how to make a pie, you wouldn’t start at the end and work your way backwards. Although showing what the pie is going to look like, would definitely get the readers’ taste buds working overtime.

To know where to start your story, decide these things:

  • What is your premise/theme of your story?

Is it Love plus dishonesty equals a second chance.

Or is it Love plus dishonesty equals death.

  • What is the Genre? Children, Adults, Fiction, Non-fiction, Magazine, Book
  • How are you choosing to tell it? Which of the following techniques will you use?

1. Chain Reactions – Cause and effect

2. Opposing Forces – Main character seeks goal; opposing forces try to keep them from achieving it.

3. Situational – Every character in the story is in the same situation.

4. Circle Story. Forrest Gump is a circle story. It starts with a feather and ends with a feather. The feather is a symbol of the story is going to go from one thing to another in Forrest’s life and it’s anchored to the bus stop giving flashbacks of the story right before he sees Ginny again and finds out she is pregnant with his child.

  • Will your scenes be in Chronological Order or will you use Flashbacks?

Some make more sense to start in chronological order at the first action dialogue, big dramatic change in their lives and go on to the end – either reaching the goal or failing miserably. Not all stories make sense with flashbacks. You don’t want to back and forth from flashbacks to the present too quickly, too many times, or without reason. My advice is to use flashbacks and backstory sparingly.

  • How Will your First Page(s) Hook the readers?

1. Exposition – Opening Incident – (Scene, Incident, Event, Experience) – Show an ordinary day with an event that shows how strong, weak, stingy, the main character is so that the reader will definitely see the complete difference at the end of the story. Show the main character and the problem, or hint at the problem. Don’t fill the beginning with unnecessary information that the reader doesn’t have to know. Give readers information when he needs it to understand the story.

2. Inciting Scene (Incident, Event, Experience) – “Run, Forrest, run” from Forrest Gump is a reminder that your story must have action. You need action throughout your story, but you especially need action at the beginning.

Where the action begins in your story. It shows the main problem. This is the part that grabs the reader’s attention and gives a hint of what might follow. Begin your story on a day that’s different, close to the time of the big life-changing event for the main character that starts the chain reactions – the sequence of events in the story. Start with the event that caused your main character to all of a sudden want or need something different to be happy, to survive, or to get revenge.

In my view, the opening incident and the inciting incident will probably be on the first page of the story. Margaret Mitchell waited until page 3 to put the action dialogue in Gone with the Wind. Readers today may not give you that long. But again, it depends upon your story and its readers.

Oscar Collier and Frances Spatz Leighton said, “Curiosity and suspense turns pages so don’t tell the whole secret at the beginning.” So I’m telling you, fill the beginning of your story with action and information that will make a reader very curious.  Make him so curious to find out what happens to your character(s), that he can’t put your book down until he finds out what happens at the end of the book.

Fill your story with parts that put questions in the reader’s mind. What’s going to happen to the main character? Will they be able to reach their goal? What’s going to happen when the villain meets them? What’s the main character going to do when he falls flat on his face with no hope of getting up?

The following is a quote from Forrest Gump, a movie adapted by Eric Roth that is based on a 1986 novel by Winston Groom.

“My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what  you’re going to get.”

One famous sentence from the movie, Forrest Gump, tells you what your story must have from the first page to the last page. “Run, Forrest, run” reminds you that your story must have action. You need action throughout your story, but you especially need action at the beginning.

If you’re a good writer and know the rules, then you can break them to your advantage with great writing. I don’t recommend breaking the rules, but some best-selling novels have done so.

Look at your story like you were a reader who is reading it for the first time.

What is your purpose in writing for the reader?

  1. To inform the reader
  2. To entertain the reader
  3. To persuade and influence the reader
  4. To use description and in poetry or prose.

If your first page leads the reader to think you’re going to do a particular thing in your story, you need to do it. You have to give the reader what you promise. For instance, if you lead the readers to think you’re going to explain what happened after Rodney got stuck in a ten foot tuba, and at the end you still haven’t told them, the reader will feel betrayed. They won’t read another book that you write. It’s disappointing and they feel rotten.

So tell me now. Where do think you should start your story? Who knows best where to begin it?


  1. Beth Hill. Fiction Editor. “What To Write First When Writing Fiction:”
  2. Corey Green. “Story Planning Worksheet”http://www.coreygreen.com/documents/storyplanningworksheet.pdf
  3. Corey Green. Story Tips #1 http://www.coreygreen.com/storytips.html#1
  4. Donald A. Maass. Writing a Breakout Novel Workbook. Writer’s Digest Books 2004. http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Breakout-Novel-Workbook-Donald/dp/158297263X/ref
  5. E. B. White. Charlotte’s Web http://www.amazon.com/Charlottes-Web-Read-Aloud-B-White/dp/0060882611/ref
  6. Erich Segal. Love Story http://www.amazon.com/Love-Story-Erich-Segal/dp/0380017601/ref
  7. Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. How Not to Write a Novel: http://www.amazon.com/Write-Novel-Them-Misstep-Misstep/dp/0061357952
  8. Jacob M. Appel’s tips:  http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/write-first-chapter-get-started/10-ways-to-start-your-story-better
  9. James N. Frey. How to Write a Damn Good Novel II. St. Martin’s Press. http://www.amazon.com/How-Write-Damn-Good-Novel/dp/0312104782/ref
  10. Jeff Kinney. Diary of a Wimpy Kid. http://www.amazon.com/Diary-Wimpy-Kid-Cabin-Fever/dp/1419702238/ref
  11. Lee Gutkind. Creative Nonfictions: How to Live It and Write It: http://www.amazon.com/Creative-Nonfiction-How-Live-Write/dp/1556522665
  12. Margaret Mitchell. Gone with the Wind.  http://www.amazon.com/dp/0446365386/ref
  13. Oscar Collier with Frances Spatz Leighton How to Write & Sell Your First Novel: http://www.amazon.com/Write-Sell-Your-First-Novel/dp/0898797705/
  14. Writers.Stack.Exchange. “Questions: How to Start a Book Off?” http://writers.stackexchange.com/questions/4793/how-to-start-a-book-off
  15. Winston Groom. Forrest Gump. http://www.amazon.com/Forrest-Gump-Winston-Groom/dp/0743453255/ref
  16. Script-o-rama.com. Forrest Gump Script. http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/f/forrest-gump-script-transcript-hanks.html

Do something today to celebrate you.
Never Give Up

Joan Y. Edwards

Copyright © 2012 Joan Y. Edwards

Vary Your sentences: Begin with a Different Part of Speech

“Vary Your Sentences: Begin with a Different Part of Speech” by Joan Y. Edwards

In the book Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon, she gives you many ways to vary your sentences and improve your manuscript.  One new way intrigued me.  It was a new perspective on varying sentences for me. I’ve written about varying sentences by making them as long as ten words or shorter than 40 words. Make some sentences simple, some compound, others complex.  Elizabeth Lyon says you can vary sentences by beginning sentences with a different part of speech. Certainly you might not want to do this for every paragraph or use all ten of them on every page. But if you find yourself in a rut of the same kind of sentences in a paragraph, using her idea will help you change the pattern and add emphasis to the sentences instead of letting them disappear into a sing-song rhythm.

You say, “Explain it more. I don’t understand what you mean.”

Okay. Let me see if I can make it easier to understand.

Take the longest paragraph from the first ten pages of your manuscript.

Here’s one I made up for this blog post:

Steve left the bar at 2:00 a.m. He locked the doors and turned on the security. He wondered if that guy was really going to come back and get the girl at the bar. That creep wasn’t going to get her if he had anything to do with it. Where was Sarah anyhow? He’d seen her leave an hour ago with a friend. He looked to the right passed the cars parked near the dumpster. He saw sparkly material on the ground. He ran to check it out. He couldn’t believe what he saw.

I’m sure you’ll agree that this paragraph needs help with varying the sentences. Out of 10 sentences, seven of them begin with the word “he.” That is boredom at its height. Help! My paragraph needs help.

To improve the sentences using this method, you have to know the different parts of speech and how to use them properly.

What are the parts of speech? Here are parts of speech, definitions, and an example of a sentence beginning with it.

1. Interjection is a word or a short phrase usually followed by an exclamation point that can stand alone.  Use sparingly. The English Club.com has examples: http://www.englishclub.com/vocabulary/interjections.htm. Use sparingly in manuscripts.

Oh my! He lost his wallet.

Yikes! The roof is leaking.

2. Preposition is a connecting word that shows the relationship of a noun or a noun substitute to some other word in the sentence, including time, location, manner, means, quantity, purpose, and state of condition. (Unbelievable information about prepositions at this link from Hunter College Reading/Writing Center http://rwc.hunter.cuny.edu/reading-writing/on-line/prep-def.html) And even more about prepositions at About.com http://grammar.about.com/od/pq/g/prepositerm.htm

On Wednesday the bird in the tree sang a song for the children at the playground after lunch.

From the auditorium we could hear the band rehearsing.

3. Conjunction is a word that joins words, phrases, clauses and sentences. There are three types of conjunctions: and, but, or, yet, so, for, nor. Coordinating conjunctions work in pairs: both…and; either…or; neither…nor. Subordinate conjunctions: before, while, since, because, and until.

Jane went to the store. However, she did not make a purchase.

Neither Tom nor Jack drove the truck.

Before Jake blew out the candles, he took a deep breath.

4. Verb is an action word, state of being, or a helping or linking word. The English Club has a list of 600 regular verbs: http://www.englishclub.com/vocabulary/regular-verbs-list.htm and also Moms Who Think.com has lists and explanations of the uses of different kind of verbs: http://www.momswhothink.com/reading/list-of-verbs.html

Run to the corner and back.

Curl your hair with the new rollers.

5. Adverb is a word that describes or limits a verb.  Most of the time, it’s good to use a better more specific verb than to use an adverb of manner ending with “ly.” MomsWhoThink.com has a list of common adverbs: adverbs that indicate place, purpose, frequency, time: http://www.momswhothink.com/reading/list-of-adverbs.html

Yesterday he raced his car.

Somewhere lurked the cat.

6. Gerund is a noun using the ing form of a verb. Owl at Perdue University has good examples of gerunds at work in sentences: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/627/01/

Running is his favorite stress reliever.

Sewing keeps her busy.

7. Noun is the name of a person, place, or thing.

Men, women, and children filled the mall.

Newspapers featured a story and pictures about the new invention.

8. Pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun in a sentence.

Uncle Jim backed the trailer into a parking space. He was sure the space was big enough.

9. Adjective is a word that describes and often precedes a noun. Keep and Share.com has a great list of adjectives that describe appearance, condition, shape, size, sound, time, taste, touch, quantity, and feelings: http://www.keepandshare.com/doc/12894/adjective-list

Red shoes tapped the rhythm.

Three uniforms hung in the lockers.

10. Limiting Adjectives Articles A, an, the.

A dog barked.

An apple dropped from the tree.

The mailman delivered the package on time.

Okay. Now you’re very familiar with the parts of speech mentioned above. You are ready to do one or more of the following exercises to help you see what pattern of sentences you use most often and decide if you want to use a different part of speech for the first word of your sentences to improve your writing.

Exercise 1: Print out a page of your manuscript – preferably a whole page. Underline or highlight the first word in each sentence, then put a tally mark in the appropriate column in the chart below.

Exercise 2: Rewrite that page with the purpose of varying the sentences. If you used only two ways to begin your sentences, use three more ways to vary your sentences on that page. You want the writing to flow smoothly. Sometimes you want to repeat a pattern.

Exercise 3: Copy the first page of your favorite book. Underline or highlight the first word in each sentence, then put a tally mark in the appropriate column. Does your favorite author vary the part of speech for the beginning of her sentences?

Exercise 4:  When you critique another writer’s work, you might think that sentence variation would improve the writing. If so, make a chart like this for them and mark the beginnings of their sentences on a random page or give them a link to this blog post.

Part of Speech Variation of First Words in Sentences on a Manuscript Page

Interjection Preposition Conjunction Verb Adverb Gerund Noun Pronoun Adjective Article

I hope this helps you understand the work of the parts of speech, and how to use them to vary the structure of your sentences in your manuscripts. Only use this if you agree with 100 per cent that it will help you.

Please leave a comment.
1. How many ways did you begin your sentences on the page you selected?
2. Do you think rewriting your page using a different part of speech for the first word in your sentences helped improve your story? If so, why? If not, why not?
3. How many parts of speech seems natural to use on a page?

If you leave a comment below before December 13, 2011, I’ll put your name in a hat to win a free first page critique (first 250 words). I’ll focus on critiquing it according to three questions you ask and three questions of my own.

Thank you for reading my blog. I appreciate you. Please subscribe by email from the left hand column, if you haven’t subscribed already.

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Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards
Copyright © 2011 Joan Y. Edwards