The Why's, When's, and What-Not's for Opening a Story

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Last week I started writing my sixteenth full length book. Whenever I face the completely blank screen and start to type my first word, I always feel the thrill of embarking on a new adventure. But at the same time, I also battle insecurities and worries over how to begin my story in a way that wows my readers.

As I brainstormed, I struggled to narrow down the best way to start my newest book. I wrestled through a few questions, namely the why's, when's, and what-not's of opening a story:

The Why's of an Opening:

I don't remember stressing over my opening so much in the past. I was more intuitive, jumping into the story at the moment of change in my character's life but without having the pressure to make it incredible.

But times have changed from when I first started writing. Nowadays with the ease of reading the first pages online before buying a book, writers have to be more intentional and start really strong or risk losing a potential buyer. Sometimes the first page, even the first paragraph, is all the chance readers will give us.

If we don’t grip readers with our story from the start, they’re likely to move on to something that will grab them.

The When's of an Opening:

"Without a clear problem to solve, there is no story. Period. Story is about struggle that leads to change." (~Lisa Cron at Writer Unboxed)

Story-telling is essentially throwing our main character (MC) into a problem, tying her into a knot, and then having her suffer and struggle to work her way out of the knot. The antagonist then attempts to prevent the MC from getting out of her bind.

Most often when we analyze where to being our story, we need to look for the beginning of that problem also known as the inciting incident. The inciting incident is a literary term that means: The event or decision that begins a story’s problem and pushes the main character to take action.

Sometimes the inciting incident is also referred to as the "exciting event" because it's the moment when the character's nice, comfortable world is rocked. Something happens that pushes the MC off the path she was traveling onto a different course that will ultimately change her life. The disturbance is the start of her character arc, so that by the end of the book she's a different person in some way.

So when we're considering WHERE to start our story, we want to begin somewhere near the inciting incident. If we begin too much before it, we risk loading our readers with backstory. If we start after it, we may shortchange our readers on seeing the unfolding of an exciting moment.

The What-Not's of an Opening: 

Obviously we don't want to add drama to the opening just for drama's sake. We don't want to give our character a bad hair day, have her spill coffee on her new shirt, and then get into an accident all on page one so that we can start our story with a bang. Rather we want to drop our characters into the middle of conflict and tension but in a way that relates to the life-changing story-problem.

Another thing we want to avoid in the first pages is beginning with a cliché or a situation that's been overdone. For example, my daughter handed me a new book she'd just read and she said, "Mom, it was another opening with the main character going back home after being gone for a long time." She'd noticed that pattern in a lot of books she'd read.

Finally within openings, readers aren't very forgiving of backstory dumps, stopping the story to fill the reader in on the current situation, too many characters to keep track of, the MC having paragraphs of internal thoughts (in place of real dialogue and action), and too much setting description. We need to be wary of these things throughout our books, but having them in them in our openings can mean the difference between buy and bye.

What about you? Do you struggle to write your openings? What are some other things to be aware of when trying to decide where to start your story?

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