“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?
- To inform the reader
- To entertain the reader
- To persuade and influence the reader
- 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?
- Beth Hill. Fiction Editor. “What To Write First When Writing Fiction:”
- Corey Green. “Story Planning Worksheet”http://www.coreygreen.com/documents/storyplanningworksheet.pdf
- Corey Green. Story Tips #1 http://www.coreygreen.com/storytips.html#1
- 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
- E. B. White. Charlotte’s Web http://www.amazon.com/Charlottes-Web-Read-Aloud-B-White/dp/0060882611/ref
- Erich Segal. Love Story http://www.amazon.com/Love-Story-Erich-Segal/dp/0380017601/ref
- Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. How Not to Write a Novel: http://www.amazon.com/Write-Novel-Them-Misstep-Misstep/dp/0061357952
- 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
- 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
- Jeff Kinney. Diary of a Wimpy Kid. http://www.amazon.com/Diary-Wimpy-Kid-Cabin-Fever/dp/1419702238/ref
- Lee Gutkind. Creative Nonfictions: How to Live It and Write It: http://www.amazon.com/Creative-Nonfiction-How-Live-Write/dp/1556522665
- Margaret Mitchell. Gone with the Wind. http://www.amazon.com/dp/0446365386/ref
- Oscar Collier with Frances Spatz Leighton How to Write & Sell Your First Novel: http://www.amazon.com/Write-Sell-Your-First-Novel/dp/0898797705/
- Writers.Stack.Exchange. “Questions: How to Start a Book Off?” http://writers.stackexchange.com/questions/4793/how-to-start-a-book-off
- Winston Groom. Forrest Gump. http://www.amazon.com/Forrest-Gump-Winston-Groom/dp/0743453255/ref
- 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
10 thoughts on “Where Should You Begin Your Story?”
I agree that it isn’t always easy to know where to begin a story. Sometimes the first draft begins with backstory that isn’t necessary. With improved writing skill, the new writer learns to weave important details into later sections of the story instead of placing an information dump at the beginning. Learning from the examples of pros is vital. Thanks for the reminders, Joan.
Dear Linda, Thanks for writing. You’re right; the pros teach us a lot. Have fun writing today!
Joan Dream! Love! Laugh! Never Give Up Joan Y. Edwards
This is very helpful.
Dear Barbara, Thanks for writing. I am so glad that this helped you. It is tricky to get the right mind-set about critiques. Many times I believe the conflict comes from not accepting ourselves as we are. If we don’t agree with it, it’s okay. We’ll probably agree with many parts of it. We can use those parts and love ourselves and say it’s okay to let go of the ones we don’t agree with. That I believe is what a critique is there to do – to offer us choices not to command us or else. Do something fun to celebrate you and your love of writing today.
Joan Dream! Love! Laugh! Never Give Up. Joan Y. Edwards
Love the examples of great beginnings!
Dear Widdershins, Thanks for writing. Those particular books and movies came to mind, so I looked them up to see the first lines. Pretty incredible how they reflect the rest of the story, isn’t it? Which stories or movies called you by their opening lines?
Joan Dream! Love! Laugh! Never Give Up. Joan Y. Edwards
You’re a great teacher and this was a great post. Thank you!
Thanks for the compliment about being a great teacher. I appreciate it. It means a lot coming from you.
Do something fun to celebrate you and your love of writing today.
Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards
Another one for my class wiki! Thanks.
You’re welcome. I’m glad you liked the post telling you where to begin your story. I’m honored and thankful that you’re adding it to your Wiki.
Celebrate you today.
Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards