Where and how to start your story?

One of the most import decisions you make when beginning a new WIP is, where and how to start your story.

Your main character is starting a new job. Does your story start with their acceptance letter or on the first day? Your main character is about to travel to a new town to make a fresh start, hoping to leave their problems behind. Does your story start with their reasons for leaving or with their arrival in a new town? Your main character is poor and suddenly lumbered with an unexpected substantial bill. Does your story start by demonstrating their poverty or when the large bill arrives?

The answer in each case should be the latter. Deciding where and how to start your story is as important as choosing you point of view character. Your story opening needs to grab the reader’s attention and one of the quickest ways of doing this is to show the problem your main character has to overcome. In the above examples, start with the first day in a new job and feed in how the character felt about applying for the job or when they heard they were successful. Start with your main character arriving in their new town, why they upended their life can be done through flashback, reading their journal or receiving a message about the problems they left behind. Start with your main character receiving the large bill. When they panic about how to pay it, you can show their poverty.  Starting with the problem puts the reader immediately in the thick of the action. How your character reached that point is backstory.

You, the writer, needs to know your character’s backstory, but the reader doesn’t. Your main character will reveal their backstory though how they react to their problem and set out to resolve it. The reader will learn about the backstory as they need to know the why your main character needed a new job, the motivation for you character to move to a new town or why your character can’t afford the unexpected bill.

Real life happens chronologically, but stories don’t have to. Fiction can move back and forth in time or a character’s past can be told in parallel with their current day actions or told in episodes so characters and readers can skip the boring bits and move from action to action. When you describe a recent trip to a friend, do you go into long laborious detail about buying the tickets, arriving at the departure point, how and what you did on the journey, the arrival point, your bland chain hotel room or do you skip all that and start with the most exciting event on your trip? When you tell a story, you can do the same.

The first draft may be written chronologically so you can get to grips with the story’s timeline and the structure of events. Amateur writers stick with this running order, perhaps editing and refining their prose but keeping the order intact. It shows a lack of confidence in your readers if you drag them through your character’s backstory before getting to the main event. Readers pick up on this and stop reading because getting through the first paragraphs was such a boring slog, they start questioning whether the story gets better and whether it is worth reading on. The result may be elegantly written but won’t feel like a story.

Professional writers look at their first draft and start to consider structure. They ask, the Where and how to start your story question. What if a later scene was brought forward. They know that a full on action scene needs to be followed by a quieter, measured scene. A story that charges ahead at full throttle and doesn’t vary the pace can become just as boring as one that labours every detail and slows the reader down to a dawdle. A quieter scene is an ideal point to bring in some background information. Better still, crop the backstory to key points and show how it influences the main character’s reaction to their dilemma. Their backstory might influence who they go to for advice, might be the reason behind flawed logic which makes the problem worse or show that the character has the capacity to overcome the problem. The professional writer may not feel the need to spell out the character’s backstory but trust the reader to figure it out from hints and implications in the character’s actions. The resulting piece will feel focused and the reader will engage with the story, sketching out the character’s background for themselves.

Look again at your latest draft. Have you started with the story or the backstory? This is where putting a new story aside for a while, finding a trusted beta-reader or joining a writers’ group (online or in real life) can help because your story will be read afresh. At that point, you’ll have a clearer idea of what your story is trying to achieve and where its true starting point is.

Professional Editing with Denise O’Hagan

About the contributor

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