Act I: The Beginning
You lay the foundation for your story and set the stage by introducing your setting, the protagonist, and the conflict that’s going to take the protagonist on a journey in which he may be changed or may change others. You need to tell us the “who,” “what,” “when,” and “where” of the tale.
If you don’t begin your story by introducing your protagonist, you still need to set the groundwork for his later introduction. The story is about him, after all. If it’s a murder mystery and your detective is the protagonist but you don’t want to introduce him in the first chapter, you could begin with the murder and the murderer, because this is the circumstance that the protagonist will enter into and be changed by.
This is the place where you announce to the readers what the story is about, what’s at stake, and why they should care. It’s crucial to get all these elements in so that you have their attention right from the beginning.
Tips For Writing Story Beginnings
1. Streamline. Don’t introduce too many settings and too many characters all at once. It confuses readers. Each chapter can be set in a new place, but try not to move locations more than twice within a chapter.
2. Get into the action as quickly as possible. You don’t want to spend too much time in your set-up or you’ll lose your reader.
3. Make your elements work double duty. In The Last Girls, Lee Smith uses setting to give us a glimpse of her character, Harriet. “… Mississippi begins in the lobby of the Peabody hotel. Waiting to check in at the ornate desk, she can well believe it. Vast and exotic as another country, the hushed lobby stretches away forever with its giant chandeliers, its marble floors, its palms, Oriental rugs and central fountain, its islands of big comfortable furniture where gorgeous blond heiresses lean forward toward each other telling secrets that Harriet will never know and could not imagine.” How Harriet sees this world explains exactly who she is.
4. Avoid starting with an extended backstory. It can be done, but unless it has a lot of action, it’s tricky to hold the reader’s interest. The device of backstory is used to explain the past. If you start with the past, people confuse it with the present. So make sure that we know your characters before you start making excuses for how they behave. We won’t care about them, and won’t be able to try to understand why they are who they are until we’ve bonded with them. Give us a scene, or some dialogue, or at least observe them from a distance before you use backstory to explain their actions.
Did you enjoy today’s tip? Learn more about the art and craft of writing from The Constant Art of Being a Writer.