Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Three Steps To Finding The Beginning Of Our Story

I have a special treat for my readers today.  I recently won a contest over at Jami Gold's blog, and for my prize, opted to have Jami do a guest post.  If you don't already follow her blog, you should.  It's chock full of useful information on the craft of writing.  I've also taken her course on building a WordPress blog (something I plan on doing in the near future) and was happy with the experience.

So without further ado, here's Jami.

Three Steps to Finding the Beginning of Our Story
Thanks for inviting me over, Ken! I’m excited to be here for your win in my Blogiversary contest and grateful for the opportunity to share some (hopefully) useful information with your readers. *smile*
Shortly after Ken’s win, he posted about a problem he was having with the story he’d started during last year’s NaNoWriMo. He was stuck on the first chapter and couldn’t come up with a beginning he liked.
Like Ken, I’ve also struggled with story openings. We have to accomplish so much at the beginning of stories it can be difficult to cram all the must-do’s into those first pages. It doesn’t help if we can’t think of the right place to start the story or what we want the beginning to accomplish.
Let’s see if we can break down the steps to figuring out our story opening…

Step One: Discover Where Our Story Should Start
Unless we’re pantsing our story (writing by the seat of our pants) with almost nothing in mind, we’re usually going to have an idea about our story’s premise (“It’s about a man who has to save his wife from kidnappers.”). Our premise usually contains clues about the ending of our story. In our example, the man will save his wife from kidnappers (unless we’re writing a tragedy).
Stories are about change, so once we know something about how the story ends, we know what kind of contrast to set up at the beginning. We can think about that ending and brainstorm ideas about what sort of beginning would show the change we want for our theme.
If we want a story about not taking things for granted, we might show a beginning where the couple snipes at each other for nitpicky things. If we want a story about finding our inner strength, we might show a beginning where a mean boss bullies the man at work.
We can start our story thousands of ways. To narrow down our choices, we need to figure out the big picture of what we want to accomplish: What impression do we want the reader to have from our beginning?

Step Two: Discover When Our Story Should Start
Those examples above give us a concept for our beginning, but we need to decide how that scene ties into the rest of the story. A story opening with a bullying boss will fall flat if it goes on and on and is followed by ho-hum grocery shopping on the way home from work.
Instead, we want that beginning scene to occur just before something happens to the protagonist that forces a change or decision. Many stories will end the first chapter on an Inciting Incident. Inciting Incidents can be a hook or twist to start setting up the main conflict, or they might act as a bridging conflict to keep readers interested until the main story conflict begins.
Our goal at this step is to tie our beginning scene into the rest of the story. Maybe our bullied protagonist is deep into a high-pressure work deadline the boss gave him when the kidnappers call with their demands. Or maybe our sniping protagonist is at the grocery store when his wife’s cell number displays (“Yes, I remembered the milk, Deanna! I’m not stupid.”), and he discovers it’s not his wife on the other end of the line.
Once we know the opening scene and how it ties into the rest of the story, we’ll typically have anywhere from the first tenth to the first quarter of our story planned. Now we just have to write it. *smile*

Step Three: Discover How Our Story Should Start
We know the concept of the opening scene, the impression we want readers to have, and the story direction for the opening. With all that in mind, we’ll draft those first pages.
Our draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It won’t be perfect.
We don’t have to come up with the perfect first line now. We just have to get our opening scenes close enough that we can move forward with the rest of the story. The way to get close is by focusing on the conflict.
Beginnings aren’t about setting up the character and their situation. Beginnings are about setting up elements of the story’s conflicts. Readers will learn about the character and their situation along the way.
Show a choice the character makes that demonstrates how they’re sabotaging themselves from reaching their potential. Or show a problem the character has to deal with that gives readers the impression we want about some of the character’s traits. Or show a problem that gives readers hints about the main conflict. The point is to show conflict.
Too often we skip right to this last step and obsess over the “perfect” first line. But if we’re focused only on the first page, we might lose sight of what impression we want the reader to take away from our beginning.
(Note: Blogger extraordinaire Janice Hardy has some great posts on this topic as well: where to start your novel and what to do with that first page.)
This “going from the big picture to the specific” method forces us to know our goal before putting our fingers to keyboard. Or worst-case scenario, we could use this method during revisions to come up with a new beginning that won’t lead readers astray. *smile*
If you’d like more insight into how pantsers can use this method to prevent tangents and pointless scenes, check out my upcoming workshop on how to plan our story just enough. Ken’s readers can use Promo Code “gopants” to save $10 on registration.

Have you had problems with a story beginning? What step do you have the most trouble with? Do you have other suggestions on how to figure out the right beginning?

About Jami
After her potion to become as smart as Hermione went horribly awry, Jami Gold moved to Arizona and decided to become a writer, where she could put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fortunately, her muse, an arrogant male who delights in causing her to sound as insane as possible, rewards her with unique and rich story ideas.
Fueled by chocolate, she writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy tales that range from dark to humorous, but one thing remains the same: Normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.
Find Jami at her blog, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, Pinterest, and Goodreads.


  1. Thanks again for having me here, Ken! This year has been great fun for me in working with my Blogiversary winners on their prizes. :)

    As with many of my posts, this is a topic close to me because I've struggled with the issue as well. Hopefully, this give us *all* ideas on how to move forward. :)

    1. My pleasure. I'm still working out the kinks of my story beginning. Nothing near publishable quality yet, but close enough to allow me to proceed on with the rest of my story. My CPs are becoming impatient.

  2. This is the best info I've seen on opening a story. Excellent points, Jami. You nailed them. I don't struggle with this any longer, but I sure did in the beginning. I'm spreading the word so other new writers can read this. Thanks, Ken.

    1. Hi Joylene, Thanks for the kind words, and I hope your luck with beginnings continues to hold! :)

  3. Hi Jami :) Sorry I haven't been by your blog lately, been offline a lot.

    These are excellent story points. I struggle with what should be in the first paragraph, first chapter. These tips all make sense to me.

    Thanks for sharing. And congrats on the giveaway win Ken.


    1. Hi Donna,

      I understand the need to get offline sometimes. :) I hope this helps you find your story beginnings!