“Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start,” sang Julie Andrews in the sound of music. Now, while this may be a very good place to start learning your ABCs and Do Re Mi’s, it’s really not the best place to start your story.
These days we have the very short attention spans of those addicted to scrolling through social media or flicking through Netflix shows, to deal with. We can’t afford a meandering beginning to our novel, memoir or, most of all, our short stories. We need to hook the reader IMMEDIATELY! Yes, right away we have to establish a quest, question or character who is so compelling and complex that our reader wants to keep turning those pages as quickly as she can.
The best way to do this is to start with ACTION: A scene where your character is doing something that demonstrates their unique, intriguing personality and establishes, or at least gives us a giant clue as to what is at stake.
WHAT IS AT STAKE?
What does your character have to lose? Will the world end if Jack Reacher or James Bond doesn’t defeat the evil overlord? Will a family become destitute if at least one of the sisters doesn’t marry a rich man? Will a teenager die of mortification if she doesn’t get a date to the school dance?
What is at stake may be something as seemingly insignificant as that date, but it must feel vital to your protagonist. The reader has to care whether the character will achieve their goal or not. Remember: SUSPENSE = HOPE + FEAR!
SET UP YOUR CENTRAL QUEST OR QUESTION
Using what is at stake, establish within your first few pages the central challenge for your character. Will James Bond defeat Goldfinger and save the world? Will one of those sisters marry a rich man and save her family from poverty? Will our teen get a date?
Make sure your opening pages are setting up this question as it drives the narrative forward and compels your reader to turn pages. Remember that your first readers are your potential agent or publisher.
BEWARE OF BACKSTORY
A common error made by new writers is the, what I like to call, “Charles Dickens Opening”. Eg: I was born… It’s important for writers to know in detail the backgrounds and upbringings of their characters, but the most important elements of this can be woven into your story later, once you’ve established forward momentum by your central quest or question. So if your opening is full of wonderful detail about your protagonists early childhood, and perhaps even the history of their family; if you say to potential readers, “But just wait till chapter 4, that’s when it gets really exciting,” then it’s time to create another file called, “Bits I love and may need later” and CUT CUT CUT!
CUT TO THE CHASE
A wonderful rule to follow, whatever you’re writing is:
GET IN LATE AND GET OUT FAST!
Start as close to the central action of any scene as you can (with it still making sense) and get out before you write too much and bring closure where none is needed. Leave that scene ending open, so your reader is left wondering what happened next. Leave gaps for the reader to fill in themselves. This is the joy of reading.
By all means, write that backstory. Write it all down, but then go back and find where the action really starts and cold heartedly cut that backstory. Remember you can always weave it back in as flashbacks or just one liners here and there that give us clues about a character’s past. Reveal that past slowly. And most importantly CUT ANYTHING THAT DOESN’T EITHER DEVELOP CHARACTER OR FURTHER YOUR PLOT!
Start in the middle, weave in the beginning, and keep us reading all the way to the end.
GOOD LUCK with your stories. Remember, writing is rewriting.
Lots of love,