5 Ways To Begin A Story
Because this is my first post as a writer on this blog, I’ll start with one of the most basic but fundamental parts to a story: How to begin.
The beginning is arguably the hardest part of a story to write. Many aspiring writers end up clutching their hair in distress, staring at that familiar bleak white screen or paper. It feels as if all previously held knowledge about starting a story evaporated, leaving you as a fleshy husk filled with nothing but dreams. Even if you didn’t previously know how to start a story, this should prove to be a starting point for your starting point. While this might be one of the most difficult topics to master, it’s also one of the most fun to write out.
Here are six common ways to begin a story, no matter if you are writing a short story, novella, or a novel.
1. EXPOSITION and Prologue
After several hours and days conceptualizing a story, you may begin to wonder how to set up the world for the readers. This is especially true for sci-fi/fantasy stories, where you want to talk about all the strange little details and nuances of the world. The rich history and cultures setting the base for your story sound awesome and interesting to you, but to your readers, not so much. When was the last time you decided to read a twenty-pageinformational on gardening? Your readers might feel the same way. Exposition can work, and it can work very well, but make it concise, straightforward, and most importantly, relevant. Great expositions, and in beginnings in general, are meant to make the readers ask questions. After all, why would they turn your pages unless something about it intrigued them?If every little detail important for the story, then you will have plenty of time later in the story if the middle sags, or to increase the level of immersion for the readers.
A prologue, on the other hand, is mostly used as exposition, the only difference being that a prologue is defined as a separate part of a story. Think of it like a “pre-opening”. This is more often used in novel writing, but I will touch on the topic lightly. Now, writers are sometimes divided on if prologues are good openings for a story, but I am here to qualify the viability of prologues. IF a prologue directly contributes to the story you are trying to tell, then by all means, go ahead. Just understand that your first couple pages are directly linked to whether or not your story will be read to its finish.If you need a way to present a premise without slowing down your story later, then you might want to consider using exposition or a prologue to do that.
2. PHILOSOPHICAL STATEMENT
“‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t hadthe advantages that you’ve had.’” -F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
When your story requires a heavy-handed beginning to set the tone and moral, then a philosophical statement on this first page would work perfectly. Write the fundamental ideals of the moral upon which the story revolves around. This primes the reader to see things the way you intended them to be. It’s a powerful tool, especially if there’s a message that you are trying to tell with the story.
The key is not to overwrite. There is such a thing as too many words, and dragging on something that begins to sound like a philosophy textbook rather than fiction is not what you want as a hook.The statement beginning is somewhat like preparing a pufferfish. It’s hard to pull off, but if you can do it right, then your story can begin on an excellent note that makes your readers really think about what they are reading. However, I would suggest using this sparingly. Use it for the more seriously toned stories to get a sincere response.
3. DESCRIPTION of a setting
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984
A setting is one of the most important parts of a story. With the setting, you can manipulate the feelings and stakes. The setting you choose will be pertinent to a scene, and this rings especially true on the very first scene. This beginning also works wellwhen the scene is revisited several times, and setting it up early can be critical to the success of the story. The dark and stormy night creates a mood entirely different from a misty sunny morning. And with this, you should realize that setting the tone for the beginning and perhaps the rest of the book, begins with describing the setting.
The only vice to this start is that like characters, settings can also be overexplained to the point where the fictional part of the story becomes a catalog of what populates the area. The point is to create a base from which your story can play out. It’s like placing a distinct layer of concrete so that the characters can move around and get on with the plot. Utilize the setting to create the story. Don’t make the story about what the setting looks like.
4. ACTION & DIALOGUE
“’What’s it going to be then, eh?’” -Anthony Burgess, Clockwork Orange
“In media res”, or in the middle of things, has been perhaps the most common way to begin a story. And although it isn’t synonymous with action, it captures the essence of what this kind of beginning is. Beginning with action is one of the most prominent beginnings because of its ability to instantly capture the attention of any reader. Of course, action is not limited to crazy fighting scenes or long city-wide chases. Action can be the simple act of a character crossing a name off a list or flicking on the lights. But regardless of the action being performed, the scene immediately takes effect on the readers and the characters, and is a very effective way to jumpstart the plot.
Dialogue beginnings are in the same family as action beginnings and are used to throw the reader straight into a situation. This can be more character-driven than the action beginning. And if you want to go a level deeper, assume that a dialogue beginning is pointed both to a character and to the reader.
However, after setting up the action/dialogue and premise, it’s a good idea to take a step back and slow down things so that readers can follow along at a good pace. It’s also not necessary to have these types of beginnings as some writers have been taught. There are many ways to start a story, and action/dialogue isn’t the stone-cold answer to every type of story you may want to tell. However, they are two of the easiest and most effective ways to begin a story.
5. INTRODUCTION of the narrator
“Call me Ishmael.” -Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Introductions are great to establish your characters right away. You gain direct insight into your main character(s) because that is literally the first thing on the page. This kind of beginning is the best for stories that center around the development of the characters. You can use this for both first-person point of view and third person. Included in an introduction is usually a name, a description of their premise or situation, and a window into their true personality.
A common mistake of this beginning is focusing too much on physical appearance. You might have a clear image in your mind about what your characters look like, but your readers haven’t seen the random girl with hair like cotton candy from your math class whom you based the character on. A great pleasure about reading derives from supplanting ourselves into the roles of our characters. We want to imagine what they look like. As a general rule, don’t write extensive physical description unless it is useful to how you want to portray your character.
With that in mind, if you want to start your story with your main character as the centerpiece, this is one of the best ways to create that prominence early.
This list of common beginnings and their applications are mostly based on the many stories that I have read, my own experiences while writing, and my opinions. There are probably several more types of beginnings not included in the article. Something that works for one writer may not work for another, and it’s important to construct your own style. But at the same time, I hope that this served as a useful base from which to decide a beginning for your story.