Lie #4: "I don’t know how to start this story."
Sometimes when we writers get bogged down in uncertainty or doubt, we lie. It’s not because we mean to lie, it’s because we’re not sure what to do. We lie out of confusion.
Here is a lie I tell myself.
“I don’t know how to start this story.”
Have you had this problem, posed as a lie, enter your mind?
The truth is, what we may actually mean is this:
I’ve never been taught how to start a story.
I’m not sure where the plot begins.
Help me, someone, so I know what to do.
Never fear! Here are some truths on how to start a story that will help you combat this lie.
Lie #4: I don’t know how to start this story.
Five Truths to help you un-lie to yourself.
Truth: Start your Story with a Threat (Bickham). On the very first page of your story, your character needs to feel threatened. This doesn’t mean you need to dangle your MC off a cliff. A threat can be as small as a first day of work or school. Being new, not knowing a routine, or the norms of a setting can feel threatening–stressful. But that doesn’t mean that your MC can’t be in a potentially positive situation. Starting a new job, though stressful, can be exciting. Starting with a threat (stress) right away tells your audience, “Get in here! Something is happening!” In turn, your audience will be too curious to not read on. “I wonder if this character will get out of this situation?” Start with a threat.
Truth: Start your Story with Action. Stories are action. Plots are action. The beginning of your story must have your character doing something or the plot cannot begin. Starting with a flowery description of the setting or a lengthy backstory of your MC’s childhood is not action. From the start, make your MC do something. You can weave in that beautiful sunset or your character’s loss of their dear uncle later. Start with action.
Truth: Start your Story IN the plot. I teach secondary creative writing, and I cannot tell you how many stories I’ve had to read in which the first thing that happened was the character waking up. Then, after pages of following this character through a seemingly mundane day, the plot finally happens when the MC’s best friend tells her there’s a rumor floating around about . . .If the actions of your MC are not moving the story’s plot, cut it. Don’t start your story in a premature spot. Start IN the plot.
Truth: Start with Narrative Voice. The narrative voice, the perspective of the narrator, is hugely important to create engagement in your audience. It’s called narrative voice for a reason and your audience should have a good idea of who that voice is on page 1. You are not the narrative voice. Decide what POV your story is being told in, how much that narrative voice knows about the plot and the characters, the tone you want to convey. These things matter from the get-go if you want your audience to lean in closer. Which you do. Start with a strong narrative voice.
Truth: Your Opening Line Matters. Opening lines are essential for catching the attention of your audience. Don’t overlook the importance of your opening line and do spend time considering these things when writing, and even rewriting, this line: 1) the genre, 2) mood, and 3) setting of your story. Your opening line is that first promise to the audience that says, “you’re in for this type of story.” Don’t let your audience down. Other things to consider toying with when writing your opening line are beginning with a strange detail, how it connects to the narrative voice of your story, and the overall conflict of the MC’s journey. Drawing your audience in AS SOON AS POSSIBLE is your goal. I read once that V.E. Schwab spends an excessive amount of time writing her opening and even wrote one seventeen times before she was satisfied with it. Your opening line matters.
Un-lie to yourself. Truth: You do know how to start a story. You’ve got this, writer.
Bickham, Jack M., The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes. Cincinnati. Writer’s Digest Books. 1997.