Back in grad school we had discussions in every creative writing class about where to begin our stories. This is something that happens quite a bit, and I’ve seen writers at all levels have to deal with it. In this post I’ll offer my advice on how to get going.
Our instructor called this the attack point. It’s where you come at the story and begin the approach, and it’s critical because if you get it right you should figuratively catch the wave and ride it through the story. You’ll know when this happens. (Sometimes it may take a bit, but you’ll get there – that’s a good indication you’ve doing it right)
Start In The Middle Of Something…
One good way to get started is in the middle of something gone bad. Raiders of the Lost Ark begins with Indiana Jones on a previous adventure where things go south. This is a great opportunity to show us the character, the world, and set the tone. This approach will get you warmed up and take you into the current story.
One word of caution, though – you can’t go long with this or people will wonder when the current story will begin. Remember to balance it and end the segment before you wear out its welcome.
…Or A Moment of High Drama
Another good place to start is in the current story in a moment of high drama. This can work well if you play with time in the story and work in a nonlinear fashion. The X-Files was great at this. They often started in what seemed like a climactic moment, then rewound the story to show us how we got there. Things usually weren’t what they seemed and the actual climax was even bigger than we thought.
Sometimes It May Get Cut
Something to keep in mind is where you began writing may not necessarily be the point at which the story begins. Sometimes you’re going to write pages of work and find that the actual story doesn’t begin where you started. You got the backstory out, you got prior action out, but the actual beginning is further in.
What should you do with this? I’d cut it and save it to another file. Sometimes you may have a chance to use it in a scene later, or you’ll need to refer back to it for something later in the story. If you just throw it out you’re going to rip your hair out if you want to add it back in. (Your writing group says, “We liked that scene…you should find a way to incorporate it here, because it’d really work.” Yes, this happens and if you don’t have backups it sucks. I’ve been there.)
Parting Tip: Avoid Opening With Climax (Black Moment)
You probably don’t want to begin the story in the black moment. The reasoning behind this is if you start at the climax, how are you going to build from there? Remember that drama is about build and release – there needs to be rising tension, a moment for the audience to catch their breath, and then rising tension again. This pattern repeats throughout a well told story. You can – and should – start in a moment of high drama, making sure you can build from it.
Sometimes this is more difficult than you think. A while back I started a script about an invasion of giant, alien ants. The hero was going to be a medic, thrust into saving the world. I figured the poor guy would really have the deck stacked against him, and I wanted to start at the botched raid on the hive.
Do you see the problem? If I start with the raid, what could I have for the black moment? A second raid? That’d be boring. I tried for a while to make the story work and it just wouldn’t; so I switched the medic to a sniper (who still has the odds against him, but would have a reasonable chance at winning) and moved the raid to the first black moment (that script had two). Things flowed much better, and the script went on to place in contests…so I got something right there. If you get stuck, remember to be honest with yourself about why the story isn’t working.
What about you? What are your thoughts on where to begin a story?