Before you continue, there isn't really an answer to this question.
No, that's not true. There is, but it'll be different for everyone. I've read so many articles by writers and editors claiming formulas to finding your story's best place to begin, but the truth is, you won't find it until you've written the end. Even then, you will need to go through several edits and revisions until you discover it beneath layers of pre-story.
So, if you do want one answer: write your story.
Below are several original openings to a stroy I'm working on. Each time I'd found a new opening, I was sure it was the right one. Then I'd edit and revise from that point only to discover a new place to start.
My current WIP is called STARS IN MY POCKET. It's a YA Dark Contemporary. Here's my current pitch: A teen believes he must replace his dad’s telescope if he’s to earn his dead parents’ forgiveness for the horrible thing he said when they died, but doing so puts his best friend in danger.
Here's how it went down for the first hundred.
A thorny bush wraps itself around our back railing like it owns the place. I used to believe the damn spiky she-devil stole my parents. I used to kick it, spit on it, yell at. Gran always says be careful around her. Her. Like the damn bush is alive. It is, I guess. It takes stuff. Its thorns grab hold, and if you go hunting underneath, you're bound to get hurt.
So of course when I finally fish my key from my back pocket and try to jam it into the doorknob, I drop it. Right into the bush.
"Damnbit!" I'm not exactly enunciating tonight. "Idiot."
What doesn't work: Too many female unknowns in first paragraph (bush, mother, grandmother). Flow is off.
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world --anger, hurt, dysfunction.
Don't they know you can't see stars with ground lights on? Lame-ass skatepark. Those stupid street lamps have the park shut down for maintenance tonight, and I'm stuck dodging cars along the overpass with my dweeb of a guardian angel.
"Hey, Guy, watch it!" Jase grabs my shoulders and pushes me out of the path of a speeding semi, but I slip in its wake.
"Asshole!" I yell, flipping the driver the bird before I faceplant into a patch of dirt.
What doesn't work: Wrong place to start. We don't need the skatepark info first. That can wait.
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world--anger, hurt, risk-taking. Dialogue sets tone and pulls reader into the scene. We meet MC and his pal, setting up friendship as a theme.
In fourteen days, I’ll make my sixth journey. Hah, “journey,” what a joke. It’s like a three-minute walk from my porch, but from where I stand right now that painful patch of dirt is as far away as Orion’s Belt.
Every year, for the past five years, I’ve trekked from my back yard to a patch of dirt in the town’s vacant wash land so I can leave my parents a gift. And every year I laugh at myself, this anonymous suburbanite who will do whatever it takes to see his dead parents one more time.
What doesn't work: The goal is unclear. Sarcasm isn't working. Why is he leaving gifts? How will they help him see his parents? Why does he need to see them--besides the obvious reason? Who is this kid, and why should we care about him?
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world-- hurt, regret. Internal monologue sets MC's tone and allows us to feel his pain and inner turmoil. We are clear he misses his parents, that they're dead, and that he's trying to accomplish something by leaving gifts.
Round Four (and current contender:
In seven days, I’ll make my sixth pilgrimage to that painful patch of dirt where my parents died, hoping to see them one more time. It's a journey I've made every November for the past five years that's gone from hope to hopelessness. I mean, to be honest, I only call it a pilgrimage because I think it'll bring me peace.
It never does, and from where I stand tonight, that chance might be as far away as Orion’s Belt. In real life, it's a three-minute walk from my back porch that I take because the book I keep under my mattress says leaving my dead parents gifts will give me the chance to say I'm sorry.
What doesn't work: (my question for you)
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world- hurt, regret, hopelessness, Internal monologue sets MC's tone and allows us to feel his inner turmoil: he misses his dead parents, and he's following some kind of legend or ritual in a book to help him earn their forgiveness.
Why this works best: We have a clear goal (earn parents' forgiveness), an obstacle (something magical needs to happen, and this is clearly an ordinary world), and sympathy (he's pained with regret for something). Finally, we have a reason to keep reading: will he achieve his goal? what will happen along the way?
What do you think? I'd love to hear which opening works and why. Please share your comments. Please also share your story's opening and why you think it does or doesn't start in the right spot.
That's my story, what's yours?
When I think about my boring day, I wonder why I can't bump into John Cusack at the glove counter or come across an injured famous writer in a snowbank (not that I'd take him home and torture him). My life is neither a romantic comedy nor a suspense novel. My life is.
Yet that is where great story nuggets begin--in the mundane moments of our lives.
In my current agent-seeking YA manuscript, IN BLOOM, the story begins with an obssessive-compulsive teenager straightening her rug while her brother tries to share some strange news. That news plays out later in the story, but it's a fun way to introduce the two siblings and show their idiosyncrasies.
Consider three recent great tales and their openings:
- A boy suspended from school spends the day at the museum with his mom. (THE GOLDFINCH)
-A woman takes an interest in events outside her window on her daily train ride. (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN).
-A boy and a girl spend mundane mornings riding the bus to school. (ELEANOR AND PARK)
-A boy's attempt to kill himself is stalled when he spots a girl toying with the same fate. (ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES)
Each of these moments present a great way to open your story. Let's explore.
1. Transportation exploration. Putting your main character on a bus, train, plane, car trip, bike, or whatever is a great one to have her accidentally witness something, unexpectedly run into someone, or serendipitously find something.
2. Field trip. Whether your character is school-age or adult, a school field trip provides numerous opportunities such as those mentioned above. On a field trip, your MC can get lost, meet a stranger, find a strange item (in a bathroom, on the ground, in a gift shop), or learn something useful that might save her life later (i.e., how the ancient Egyptians stopped poisoning).
3. Beginning with an Ending. Start your story with your MC either trying to end his life or getting into an accident. Here, you have opportunity for another important character to enter. This character could be someone he later saves or who has another meaning to him (long lost... sister... brother... etc.).
Clearly, that last one is no ordinary life moment, but tragedy happens all the time. As a writer, you have the opportunity to turn those ordinary moments into something extraordinary.
Spend the day chronicling your life moments--the grocery store, bank line, work, lunch, phone calls--and find that catalyst that could turn dramatic.
That's my story, what's yours?
We've visited this topic before, but it's worth another look.
The school day ended as it had begun with the tin rattle of an ancient bell system designed to wake the dead or anyone within a football field of the boxy building.
True story. It’s how I spend my workday sixteen times over, five days a week.
Only once, do you make the mistake to stand directly beneath one of the clattering devils.
However, the jolting rattles own your attention, and there’s no doubt it’s time to get to class.
Oh for the clang of a great story opening. Previously, I’ve shared my favorite YA openers.
This week, my last group of creative writing students for the year works on story beginnings. In a few weeks, we’ll tackle endings.
How do you start your stories? With action? Mystery? Deep thoughts? Humor? Here are our favorites.
Reflect on life. No one does this better than YA it boy, John Green.
“The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle.” –Paper Towns by John Green
Reveal theme. For my students, Walter Dean Meyers has a knack for setting up his stories' themes right at the start.
“The best time to cry is at night, when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help. That way even if you sniffle a little they won’t hear you. If anybody knows that you are crying, they’ll start talking about it and soon it’ll be your turn to get beat up when the lights go out.” –Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Meet our hero/heroine. My favorite adult and young adult author, Neil Gaiman, is a master at opening his stories. One of my favorites:
“There once was a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire.” –Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Meet someone important/close to our hero/heroine. The people we love to hate from the delightful imagination of J.K. Rowling.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” -Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling
Begin with trouble. Many of today's dystopians begin this way, reminiscent of war stories detailing actual history.
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. - The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Begin with a mystery. Make your readers want to know why right from the very first line.
"All this happened. More or less." -Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
"You better not tell nobody but God." - The Color Purple by Alice Walker
What's your favorite way to open a story? Share them in the comments below.
How many times have you backed into the front door? It's not a trick question. I will take a wild guess, however, and say - never. Okay, maybe that one time when you carted in grandma's lacquered dining table. Other than that, though, most people walk in the front door faced forward. Eyes forward.
Remember that when penning the opening of your next story.
Expositions set the foundation for what's to come, but they also invite the reader in. So open that door and invite!
This past week, I've been furiously and back-achingly editing and revising my latest manuscript. (What do you think of my new opening?)
Here's a down and dirty list of what I think you need in the first five pages.
Exposition Must Haves:
*click the headings for great YA examples of each trait
1. A world - immediately drop readers into your characters' world. Where are we? Let us smell, taste and live it. Not too much. Just enough so we feel included and safe. (Remember: show, don't tell. Not: It was April 3, 2016, and the San Francisco Chronicle sat on the kitchen table. Try: I trolled the Internet for last night's A's results. Can't Billy Beane keep any player for more than two seasons?)
2. A Hero/Heroine - who are we going to root for? What's that MC have that I don't? Can I relate? Don't make him too perfect. (Not: Lilly Lane studied her third A paper of the day while she waited for Skip Target, the Tigers' star pitcher and a sure bet for Prom King. Try: Lilly Lane shoved the history test in her backpack. One C wouldn't kill her. If she scored an A on the next exam, maybe she could convince Skip Target she'd make a great tutor.)
3. A Catalyst - drop that shoe! We need to know what's at stake for our hero pronto! If you're not going to tell us until the end of the first or second chapter, you better leave us a trail of juicy clues. (Your catalyst is the event that sparks the plot. Something happens that propels the hero on his quest. If she's the school bully's favorite victim, maybe she gets suspended for a food fight that she didn't start. If he's depressed to the point of suicide, maybe he's sent to the school counselor who suggests he join their support group. The catalyst can be subtle or mind-blowing.)
4. A Problem - this we need to learn on the first page or three. I mean, what's going on that we care if there's another page to this story? If the problem is multi-layered, just give us one layer. In the "Wizard of Oz", Dorothy runs away and needs to get home. That's the main problem. Of course, she has several other adolescent troubles that lead to her leaving in the first place. (Problems can unfold, disappear or appear solved, reemerge with a vengeance, multiply or simplify - any or all of that happens as your story progresses, not in the first three pages.)
Inclusive in all is VOICE. Must have voice. That's not an exposition kind of thing, though. Voice carries your story from start to finish, so I don't include it in my Exposition Must Haves (but it most certainly is a MUST HAVE).
Share your WIP's first 100 words below. What are your Exposition Must Haves?
This month, we will explore PLOT. Plot includes the problem or central conflict to your story, how it will be resolved, who will resolve it, who will triumph, who will fail and all of that.
Traditionally, a plot structure consists of:
Exposition (story set-up; intro of main character; setting; time of calm)
Introduction of conflict
Attempts to solve conflict
Plot is the purpose of your story, the reason your protagonist wakes up in the morning, the force that causes your reader to turn the page. Everyone wants to know - what's going to happen now? Google "story plot" and you will uncover numerous models and structures for writing a story.
There's the Zen way: wake up, go about your day, and it will come to you.
There's the Professor's way: study great writers and uncover their structure.
There's the Lazy way: just write, plot will develop somehow just because you're writing something...err...moving your pen...
Now, I made all those up. Sort of. From talking with other writers, reading about other writers, I've discerned that these are three obvious ways someone might construct plot.
Today, let's talk more about that central problem. Specifically, how do you come up with one?
For me, it's a mixture of strategy and organic nurturing. I collect story ideas in a notebook, in my phone, on a pad of paper by my bedside, in the squares of my desk calendar. When I say that I 'collect' story ideas, I mean that I am constantly thinking about problems I encounter or someone encounters on a daily level, and I say to myself, "Hmm, would that make a good story?" Usually, that question is followed by a "It would if...". And that's how I come up with plot. And a "and, so" and you've got a whole premise.
Kidding. Sort of.
Think of your story's central problem like a scientist. You see a problem, so you come up with a hypothesis. When you do ------, this happens; so what if you do --------? What might happen now?
1. A boy and girl love each other [when you do this], but their parents hate each other. When the teens trick their families into renting adjoining cabins at a summer camp [what if you do this?], they wonder if love really is stronger than hate [what might happen now?].
2. Kimberly, a chubby teen, bares the brunt of vicious high school rumors [when you do this]. In order to fight back, she decides to get in shape over summer break [what if you do this?]. She loses weight and gains confidence, returning to school in September a leaner Kimberly, ready to seek revenge on her tormentors [what might happen now?].
Stuck for ideas? Troll your TV cable provider's movie choices. Read each premise. Which ones appeal to you? Write them down, then change one or two things and see what you come up with. This is a great exercise for practicing pitches. The late Blake Snyder ("Save the Cat") tells writers not to start their project until they know what it's about and what's at stake.
Think like a scientist, write like a screenwriter.
Share your thoughts below.