How to Start a Story
Updated: Dec 19, 2021
This month's tip is about the only good way to begin your story—by dropping us into the action straightaway!
The opening chapter is such a critical part of your manuscript. It's (obviously) the first thing someone reads and often what an agent will consider to determine if they want to request additional pages. It should have all these elements:
compelling urgency or tension
action and observation that propels the narrative forward
strong character development and voice that provides depth
However, I often read beginnings that are too introspective or info-dumpy or that start earlier than they should, which all create a slow, dragging pace. If we have to wait too long before we get to the meat of the story, it becomes harder to get invested in what's happening and keep turning the page.
When working on your first chapter, ask yourself these questions:
When do things really get moving/exciting in the story? For instance, if you have a story about a girl whose life goes topsy turvy when her family suddenly moves abroad, then start the day her parents give her the news. If it's about a washed-up spy given a mysterious mission and a chance to redeem himself, then start just before he's approached with the offer.
How much of this information is absolutely necessary? Go through the chapter and highlight all the details your reader will not be able to do without. Then comb through the remaining sentences and see which can be cut. Backstory should be sprinkled in throughout your manuscript at key moments, not delivered all at once.
How often am I telling instead of showing? Take that highlighter again and mark all the instances where you tell the reader something about the character, the world, etc.—like that your main character is quiet and shy or that life on a Revolutionary War prison ship is bleak and hard—and then go back and change 80% of those moments to show via context clues in character reaction, dialogue, inner thoughts, and sensory description.
How much of this is surface-level? Are you relying on two-dimensional stereotypes or caricatures to make a point or convey who your characters are? Look for moments or people that feel flat (for me, that means not being able to visualize something in my head or believe that a character is real/feel like I know what they would do in a random situation) and work on fully developing them, again utilizing writing that shows via context clues. Instead of simply being trapped in a dark dungeon, let me know about the moldy smell in the air, the gentle drip of water from somewhere far away, and the spine-tingling silence. When introducing me to the evil stepmother, show me the tics that reveal her to be deeply insecure and the way her eyes gleam when she doles out devious punishments, so that I know she enjoys seeing others' pain and is also a clever adversary.
It can take a lot of thought and a lot of drafts, but once you get that perfect beginning hammered down, you can celebrate getting the hardest part of your manuscript done!