Starting Your Story
Do you ever feel intimidated by a blank Word document and that pesky blinking cursor?
You don’t have to be.
On Thursday night and Friday morning, I went out to the movies for the first time in … nearly a year? I’m pretty sure the last time I saw a movie in theaters, it was Captain America: Let’s Fix What The Heck That Was That Happened In Age Of Ultron
I mean, Captain America: Civil War.
Don’t get me started, and thank goodness for the Russo brothers.
Anyway, the movie I saw started with a bang, a literal bang, and then another bang, and among other things (like my endless squealing and wide-eyed gaping), it got me thinking about the good ways to start a novel.
So, side note: everyone should go see the new Power Rangers movie, and then everyone should go see it again and again, because I need that movie to have a sequel pretty much as much as I need air to breathe.
Also, I need it to have all the sequels they’re potentially planning to develop, because oh my god it was so good.
Like, I freaked out at my dad for about 20 minutes after seeing it the first time Thursday night it was so good.
The cast, the Easter eggs and nods to the original show, the use of Bootstraps’ cover of Ben E. King’s Stand By Me (listen and cry HERE), the cinematic score in general (and especially for THAT scene), THAT FREAKING CAMEO, the mid-credits scene YOU NEED TO STAY TO THE END FOR, and just … all of the things.
I just can’t.
And yes, I did cry the first time I saw it. That’s my childhood, you guys.
But back to the beginning of the Power Rangers movie.
It starts with a bang, literally.
At first, I didn’t quite know what they were going for, but then it all came together and I was like, WHOA YES THAT DEFINITELY WORKS *insert about a hundred screaming emoji here*.
And that’s all I’m going to say about the opening scene, because *spoilers*!
Insert River Song gif here.
So the next scene of the ‘beginning’ features a cow named Beefcake, a thinly veiled dick joke, and a thrilling car chase.
Interested in seeing the movie now?
I really liked how they chose to start the movie, because it a starts fast AND doesn’t take forever to “get to the point”, despite the fact that the movie had a tall order of introducing not one or two, but FIVE primary characters.
So ramble sort-of-over, click the Continue Reading button for five ways (of the MANY ways that are out there) to start your story.
1 Start With Action
Like I said, the Power Rangers movie starts with action and pretty much doesn’t stop, putting it on a long list of my favorite shows and movies that start with action.
It was on Netflix for a while and now lives on Hulu, and when I’m done watching women’s college basketball (sorry UCLA #YouTried) and some men’s college hockey later (Go Terriers!), I’m going to start that up again, because Season One of Alias is one of my favorite seasons of any show I’ve ever watched*.
That pilot started with Jennifer Garner’s Sydney Bristow’s head in a bucket of water because she’s being tortured. That’s action-y!
The Battlestar Galactica pilot miniseries starts with a couple title cards, and then the annual meeting at the Armistice Station where the officer encounters a copy of Tricia Helfer’s Number Six, and they’re making out (say what? Exactly.) as the Cylons destroy the station.
And then the first episode of Season One of BSG drops viewers right into the fleet while they’re running from the Cylons who, for some reason, are attacking every 33 minutes.
Action! Pulse-pounding action everywhere!
2 Who Said You Have To Start With The Beginning?
Certainly not me. And by this, I mean the order in which you start writing the scenes in your book, because pretty much 100-percent of the time, when I write my stories, I do not start from the beginning and write to the end.
I can’t do that.
Sometimes, I even write the endings first.
A scene will pop into my head, I’ll write it if it’s compelling enough for me to open a new document in the midst of my many projects, and then craft the rest of my story around that scene.
In the very first draft of the #WhoIsTalyaNightingale manuscript, the first thing I wrote was a scene of two women in a car, driving out to a ranch in Montana.
Now, I ended up scrapping (and then accidentally deleting the entire thing. Pro tip: don’t do that) those opening scenes, but the core concept of what I originally intended to write eventually evolved into the story I spent the better part of the last two years writing.
In one story I wrote in college, I started with a scene that popped into my head, an argument between two characters. I didn’t know what they were arguing about, but I wrote it anyway, and then when I wrote the rest of the story around that scene, the argument ended up being a pretty critical moment.
Also, that scene ended up being one near the end of the book, so really, it doesn’t matter where you start, because the book and the order the scenes are in will reveal themselves to you with time.
3 Have Your Protagonist Watch Other Characters
Who doesn’t love people watching?
So grab a notebook and go to the park (yes, go outside, that’s good for writing too), find a shady bench (or wear a hat and sunscreen, because sunburns and skin damage are things we should all strive to avoid), put yourself in the mindset of your character and write what you see from their perspective.
By doing this, you can show your readers a lot of things about the universe that you’re writing without too much exposition.
You can show the era (are people out on their phones and have selfie sticks in hand, or are they riding down the street in a horse-drawn carriage, or flying around the stars on a big and shiny (or old and battered) space ship?), you can show the location (a seaside village, a park in the middle of a big city, a vast desert, a frozen tundra), and you can even show the mindset of everyone within that setting (are they walking around and going about their day leisurely, running to and fro like they’re afraid, or are they dealing with another type of tension?).
And on the flip side, think about what your characters are NOT seeing.
4 Start In Transit
I’ve noticed that my theme today seems to mostly center around action, and we can all thank the Power Rangers movie for that because, as I have been saying all post long, that movie is ALL about action.
And for any story, having your protagonist en route to a new location is an entirely underutilized way to start things off.
How is your protagonist feeling about it?
Are they going somewhere they don’t want to go? Show that. Are they nervous about where they have to go? Are they nervous for what they’ve left behind? Or are they excited? Or bored?
Start with that, so you can introduce your reader to your character’s personality, and then get to it.
5 Introduce Them To Something New
New job? New friend? New pet? New car? New life?
Is your character in witness protection and has just been thrown into a completely unfamiliar environment? Show how off balance they are. Have you ever moved somewhere new and had NO idea where the nearest market was? The nearest mall? The nearest hardware store?
When I first moved to Alabama, I was in desperate need of new light bulbs, so I made the 10-minute drive to a Home Depot. A few months later, when the trees in the forest-y area I lived in thinned out because winter was on its way, I realized that I hadn’t needed to take a 10-minute trek, because there was a Lowe’s literally around the corner from my apartment.
Write your character as they explore their new environment, and build the world around it. Or.
Did your character just die? Explore your story’s interpretation of the afterlife.
Are they in the heaven-equivalent, or are they in a hell-like place (or be like The Good Place and lie to your readers), or are they in limbo, or are they in something completely different?
Just make it new and throw your character to the figurative (or literal) wolves.
Bonus! How NOT To Start Your Story
“It was a dark and stormy night.” – Need I say more?
A fake-out dream – Especially when you end the chapter with your character’s death. There are SO MANY better ways to do it. Don’t cheat your readers from the start. Yes, you never want your reader to trust the narrator completely, but like I said, find a better way.
By waking your character up and then spending 10 pages describing them and what they look like and what their background is – Remember when I talked about how to introduce your character and I wrote that silly scene at the beginning of the post? Yeah. Don’t.
With a prologue – Just start your story. One of the things I’ve noticed more and more as I look for an agent to represent my story, is that they don’t want to see a prologue. Just start from where your story REALLY begins and make it great.
With ALL of the exposition – like I said in my post about introducing your novel’s setting, don’t give us a million pages of exposition. We REALLY don’t need to know if the Starbucks on the corner is located across the street from the hipster coffee shop (unless this story is about a war between two opposing coffee shops, but you know what I mean).
With whatever kind of info-dump you think your readers will need to know in order to understand the story – If you feel that you need to explain your book to your readers before they start reading, then you should take a very close look at what you’re doing and make some adjustments. Take that big block of things your readers need to know and put it in the story as early as you think you need, in order for things to make sense.
But don’t give away too much, too soon. Take your characters for a ride.
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Want more prompts? Check out the Prompt Library.
*Just don’t ask me about Alias Season Three.
Do you have a question about writing that you want me to answer? Leave a comment below! (I’m also answering questions in the Facebook group. Hop on over and say hi!)