Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.
– Lewis Carroll
Think about the opening of the last book you read, or the last movie. I, personally, had a cold last week, and during my incarceration on the couch watched How to Train Your Dragon.
A good story starts at the beginning–not before, and not after. The first scene of How to Train Your Dragon is actually one of my favorites: the little viking town where Hiccup lives is attacked by dragons. It’s the very same attack where he shoots down Toothless, the “dragon” in the title, and the story starts to unfold.
Just because a work is a full-length, 90k manuscript doesn’t excuse you from starting at the beginning. The last book I read was a New Adult contemporary romance (if you want to know it was Beautiful Disaster, by Jamie McGuire, about which I have many mixed thoughts–more to come next week).
The opening sequence of the novel? The first time the hero meets her love interest. Because that is where the story starts.
Nope, Not Before
Why has this one simple, easy, fairly straight-forward rule been so hard for me and many other writers? There’s a strong temptation to start just before the beginning. You know, with a bit of healthy backstory, to establish the status quo before the inciting incident hits like a Mesozoic-era meteor.
But why bother? Why risk possibly losing the reader’s attention with anything before the beginning of the story? Pull the reader right into the thick of the excitement, and begin at the event that starts the chain reaction that’s going to carry us through to the finish.
It’s scary at first to cut out all that back story you’ve worked so hard to imagine and create. We’re usually told to fold it in later. Well, I think that’s good advice. Keep that back story. It’s good that you know it, inside your head, so you can use it to inform the rest of the novel. The reader will pick up the essential pieces of back story naturally as the story progresses.
Not After, Either
In the middle of trying to avoid starting too early in the story, the temptation is often to start too late. (You just can’t win, right?) I don’t remember who said this, but an agent posted a tidbit of professional wisdom on Twitter a few months ago and it’s stuck with me ever since.
“If something traumatic has happened to a character to set them on their current path, SHOW IT TO US. Don’t skip the good stuff!”
You can get away with hinting at the life-changing event if your story is Memento. Otherwise, let us experience it alongside the protagonist! Include us in the catalyst moment for this character’s transformation–that way we’re with you 100% when we see the train wreck that unfolds afterward. The reader is now invested in the outcome.
Of course, the trick in all this is knowing which scene is “the beginning.” Pinpoint the catalyst: what is the action or consequence that starts us rolling forward? Which is the very first domino piece to fall in the series of unfortunate events to come?
Once you can pick this scene out in a line-up, start there. Then let all that pretty back story you wrote up and squirreled away somewhere reveal itself into the scenes to follow.
(A quick note: I don’t think “beginning” and “inciting incident” are the same thing, necessarily. They can be–but they aren’t always. The Simpsons is often a really good example of this. The dominos start falling quite a while before we hit the one moment that starts Homer on his quest to become hugely overweight so he can stay home–or whatever.)