Alice’s Restaurant

February 14, 2007

Where to Start A Story

Filed under: Writing Technique — aliceaudrey @ 9:31 am

Readers who haven’t tried their hand at writing tend to belittle the problem of where to start.  They don’t see the characters lives starting out before the first word, or the little silly things like the way a character spends a day.  The characters don’t live for them the way they might for a writer.  From inside the lives of the characters it isn’t so clear where an event really begins.

So how do we bridge the gap between the imaginary world of a character’s life and the starting point of the dramatic world of a characters story?  In other words, where should a story begin?

The author needs to step back.  One way to step back it to look at the story with the Hero’s Journey in mind.  The journey starts with the mundane world, the world those characters would consider normal.  This gives the reader a point of reference by which to judge what comes next.

In most cases the mundane world can be set up with little more than a couple of paragraphs.  It seems too trivial to bother with, but consider that for a vampire what is normal isn’t the same as what is normal for Suzy Home Maker.  Taking the time to show the reader which end of the spectrum we are starting from won’t go amiss.

Next, and this is still part of the beginning of the story, comes The Call To Adventure.  In other words, the character will be tempted, or forced, to do something he or she would not normally do.

You want to get to this part fairly quickly, because it’s where the story really takes off.  Many books incorporate The Mundane World into The Call To Adventure.  This can work perfectly well, and can sometimes be mixed with, or the first scene end with, The Crossing of The Threshold.  Once you’ve hit the crossing, there’s no turning back.  However, rushing through the steps too quickly can cause problems.

It’s easy to tell when you’ve missed the mark.  Miss placed beginnings tend to be either confusing or boring. Or in my case, a little of both.

Generally when it’s confusing the first scene opens too far past where the story really begins, in other words, too late in the storyline.  This happens a lot when an author tries to “jump into the action” in search of a hook.  Too much ground covered too quickly makes it hard to understand what is going on or why the characters are doing what they are doing. 

Just as often having jumped into an action scene right at the beginning can lack meaning, which is boring.  This is where I end up with beginnings that are both confusing and boring.

Most of the time when it’s boring, the author is filling in too much backstory, or focusing on something that doesn’t offer your protagonists a challenge.  In other words, the writing starts too early in the storyline.  Looking at the character’s goals, motives, and conflicts can clear this up.

Miss placed beginnings can result from an author’s attempt to include something about the characters that would be better handled in flashback.  Starting with a scene involving nothing of significance to the rest of the story tends to cause boredom, and confusion.  Focusing on an image, no matter how powerful an image, can make a good hook, but be the wrong way to start a book if the image doesn’t set up the changes the protagonist will have to make.

Any number of things can derail a story in the first scene.  But every bad beginning has an easy remedy.  Remove it, and put in one that caters to the needs of the story.



  1. Yeah.

    I think something that a lot of first-time authors do–and something I know I did–is start the story too early, as a way of dealing with backstory.

    Comment by miladyinsanity — February 14, 2007 @ 10:11 am

  2. I have been known to grab a stack of books from the TBR pile and quickly read the first couple of paragraphs. That’s how much time and space the author has to grab me and convince me to read “this one” first. Easy to recognize when you’re reading, but not so easy when you’re writing. Excellent food for writerly thought.


    Comment by Donna — February 14, 2007 @ 1:59 pm

  3. I have a tendency to start with too much backstory, probably boring the reader before she even gets to the good part. Starting the story in the correct place is something I really need to work on. I like Donna’s idea of reading my TBR pile to see how other authors do it.


    Comment by Laurie — February 15, 2007 @ 6:22 pm

  4. Backstory is a major bugaboo no matter how you slice it. You have to get it in clearly and early, but in a subtle way. I’m always screwing it up.

    Comment by aliceaudrey — February 16, 2007 @ 9:14 pm

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