‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, very gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’
From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Choosing where to start your story for a reader can seem like a simple decision. You start at the beginning. But where is that beginning? Is it the moment your character wakes up? Maybe it’s when they’re facing off against a dragon? Or perhaps, you should start minutes after the battle is done?
Where you start your story matters. It teaches your reader how to read your story and your world, creates expectations that determine overall reader satisfaction, and ultimately helps your reader decide whether or not to invest their time into your book. It’s the reason agents only ask for the first few pages of your work in a query.
With so much riding on one decision and so much existing advice on the subject, how do you know where to start?
Let’s start with one of the most common suggestions given to authors: ‘Start with a bang!’
Not a hook, but a lure
The intention behind this advice is solid. You know you need to ‘hook’ your reader, and an easy way to grab someone’s attention is to plunge them into the action right away. But a hook doesn’t mean a bang. If you look at your favorite stories, most don’t begin in the middle of a high-stakes, high-adrenaline scenario.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings starts with Mr Bilbo Baggins planning his ‘eleventy-first birthday.’ Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass places us beside Lyra and her daemon as they sneak around a hall. C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe begins with the children being sent away to the countryside.
There’s a reason most novels don’t start with a bang. If the start of your story is super exciting, what are you going to do to make the climax even better?
Your story doesn’t need to start with something that shocks, but something does need to be happening. Whether a character is scrubbing dishes so hard their nails scratch against the porcelain or they’re furiously scribbling into an exam booklet and bouncing in their chair, you as a writer can make just about anything interesting. But that something at the start of your story needs to go beyond hooking a reader. It needs to lure them in and anchor them to your story.
If you consider it from a reader’s perspective, they approach a new story wanting to be hooked. Most of us are familiar with this feeling: you read the first line, then the first page, then the first chapter, and the next thing you know, you’ve stayed up all night reading and are mourning over the last line. So, you go and search for the next book, once again hoping you’ll get lured in. This is great news because it means the power to win over readers is in your hands, but it also means you’re the only thing standing in the way of your story and its reader.
Where you started versus where your story starts
So, how do you actually lure a reader in? The first and perhaps most critical thing to consider is the difference between inspiration and story.
When you’re drafting your story, you should start wherever the muse leads you. At this stage, your only task is to get the words on the page. By the end, you’ll have taken a unique but solitary journey through your story.
But your reader doesn’t care how you discovered this story. They only care about what they experience on the page, and you are in control of that experience.
Your reader will approach your story with no knowledge of your world, characters, etc. Your first sentence will be the first piece of information they absorb. It’s like looking at a hyper-zoomed-in picture. At first, you can only see a color or a shape, but as the lens zooms out, you take in more information until finally you understand the image in its entirety.
Likewise, in writing, it’s impossible to convey everything about your story to your reader at once. You’ll need to decide what to include or omit from your beginning, and those choices will define your story in the reader’s head. As you continue to pull back the lens, the reader will continue to gain information, and more importantly, you will begin to make that reader some promises.
Every time you write a story, you are making promises to your reader. You’re promising a specific tone and genre, a character arc the reader should invest in, and a plot that will provide a clear problem and ultimately a solution. All of these promises happen at the beginning of your story, and it’s important to be aware of them. Why? Because unfulfilled promises lead to unsatisfied readers.
Let’s start with tone. From your very first sentence, your reader is going to judge the tone and style of your story, and they will expect these to continue as they started. If you’re writing a tragedy, don’t start with slap-stick comedy. If you are writing an epic space battle, beginning with a postman going on his rounds in an idyllic earth-bound village will be confusing.
It’s one reason why a lot of fantasy novels start with prologues: starting in a quiet village with an ordinary person doing ordinary things doesn’t quite set the right tone. The prologue allows action and adventure to be promised before moving back to the kid on the farm. This doesn’t mean this is the only approach – or even the right one – to tonal promises in fantasy, but it is one way it has been done in the past. The thing to remember when judging the start of your work is that the tonal promise of your book is an anchor for your reader to orient themselves within your story.
Character and plot promises are usually interlinked in some way. Your reader will want to see how your main character is going to change over the course of the story, and you promise this change from the beginning. You do this by making your character’s needs, desires, and flaws transparent. Likewise, you promise your reader that you will stay true to the type of story they are entering. If you promise a romance, by the end of your story, the payoff needs to be some love.
Your reader will use the information from the story’s beginning to prepare themselves for the end. They will make guesses about your ending. Their hypotheses don’t need to be right – your beginning doesn’t need to give away your ending. But the payoff at the end is related to how well you delivered those promises at the start.
What about worldbuilding?
One of the biggest challenges of writing beginnings in fantasy and science fiction is worldbuilding. You need to bring your reader into a new world full of new creatures, laws, and people, so how do you give them enough information to understand all the nuances? You don’t.
You might have heard this advice before, but it’s worth repeating: your reader will be lured into your story first by your character and secondly by other elements such as your plot and world. You might have developed the most spectacular, amazing, wonderous world, but it isn’t going to be the main attraction.
But don’t despair. Worldbuilding might not be the star, but when done well, it is the thing readers long to explore, and this desire keeps your story alive in your reader’s heart long past the end of your character’s story.
So, to craft the perfect beginning for your story, focus on your character, tighten up your opening scene, then sprinkle in some worldbuilding details. Tease your writer with a hint of a custom unique to your world. Pique their curiosity with a new term or name. Give them enough details that they can taste your world and want more. Don’t worry about making them understand everything. At the beginning, readers are willing to wander around, a bit lost, like a tourist in a new country. Gain their trust, and they’ll gladly follow you all the way to ‘The End.’
Do you write fantasy or science fiction?
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