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Dynamic Beginnings:
Getting Your Story Off to a Great Start

by Will Greenway

The opening of your novel or short story is crucial. It must be well written, catchy, and evocative. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, your opening doesn't move the story forward in the proper manner. This may not be a shortcoming in your writing ability, but a reflection of an improperly framed narrative.

Many people think of their stories as written in stone. In their minds, the narrative doesn't exist outside of the bounds they've chosen for the beginning and end. This can blind the writer to structural possibilities that might be helpful during a rewrite. Sometimes the story is simply lacking context that might be provided by a scene that comes before the writer's current story beginning.

Writers are not drones. We invest ego in what we create. However, if you want to write for a living, you must disassociate yourself from the material. Treat it like a house you are painting. Sometimes you miss a spot, or need another coat of paint, or -- heaven forbid -- you find the color is not what you really wanted.

You must be prepared to roll up your sleeves and do what's necessary to get the job done. They're only words in a word processor. Don't be afraid of trying again for fear of it getting worse. A beautiful thing about writing is it cannot get worse -- only better. (Be certain to make backup copies before revising, that way the original is not at risk.)

Once you are ready to start anew, these are suggestions for getting your material off to a good start.

Meet Your Reader

All right, we're ready to begin the story. First, look around and find your reader. Do you see that reader in your mind? No? Take a moment and do that. Who are your readers? Men? Women? Both? What age category are they in? Are their interests in a narrow spectrum or broad? Okay -- got it? From now on, those readers will be looking over your shoulder while you write. What you create should appeal to their tastes. In fact, you are entering into an iron-clad contract with them. They will help you write the story, and you will entertain them.

The concept of the reader helping you write the story is important for all of us who have problems with info dumps and other authorial intrusion problems. Readers often see themselves as a character in your story, usually the protagonist. Give them elbow room to bring their imagination into play. Let the reader contribute some of the finer details. For every two or three details you put in, make allowances for the reader's collaboration.

With the reader on your left shoulder, and your muse on the right, it's time to pick a place in the narrative to begin. The following are criteria you should use for when and where in your universe you should start the story.

1. Show the protagonist in focus. The protagonist is on screen and in focus. Scenery is nice but dull. Don't get bent out of shape... We know you can write beautiful, eloquent descriptions of your lovely world. Do yourself a favor -- show us later. At the beginning, simple is good... simple is God. Your focus should be on the character's emotional and physical details and getting us into that person's head. If you stop the story to give the reader a guided tour, you may lose them.

2. Establish the protagonist in context. The focus is on the protagonist. Now, provide opportunities to establish the characters in their primary social context. Are they outsiders? Insiders? Outcasts? Are they at odds with the world or in sync with it? This ties closely to the scene conflict (rule 3 below). It also bears on item 6 (the rules of the world). Context is just like that sentence: It shows how things relate and mesh with one another. Simply put, show whether your protagonist is a round, square, or hexagonal peg -- and the hole into which life is trying to fit him or her.

3. Offer a scene that reflects the overall book or story conflict. The scene should mirror the overall conflict of the novel in some way. For instance, if the book is about the protagonist getting back a kidnapped child, then a good way to start might be with the character seeing a child being taken from their parents, or two parents battling over custody of the child. There is even the blunt and obvious approach: the scene where the child gets kidnapped. Your first scene sets the tone for the rest of the book.

4. Portray an evocative situation. Show the protagonist in a vivid uncluttered scene, preferably doing something that is signature to that character. If he or she is awesome with a sword, but hates swordplay for some reason, that 'tag' is important to reveal.

5. Establish that the protagonist has something significant at stake . Conflict must be present in your start. It doesn't matter if it's a combative card game, or a family spat over what's for dinner. Make sure something that the protagonist feels an attachment to and cares for is on the line. Blood does not have to fly. People do not have to die. Heads don't need to roll. In fact, in trying to start with a bang, some people get lost in elaborate action scenes that fail miserably! Why? The characters are unfamiliar. We don't care about them yet. Action does nothing for the reader with no time invested in your protagonists.

How the main characters are motivated to deal with the conflict and the establishment of a personal stake is essential to driving your story forward. These details will provide important characterization. If the character is a nature type, and the theme is man against nature, then make the conflict deal with that issue in some way. If the protagonist has a screaming peeve about the animal abuse -- work it in. It needn't be as obvious as the character witnessing the abuse. Use indirection such as depicting an incident where the character hears about it, throws back his or her chair, demands to know where the atrocity is taking place, then storms off to confront the evildoers.

In choosing a scene of conflict, we single out that person's passion and show them grappling with it. Our demons reveal telling contrasts in our values and character. When gripped by powerful emotions, we sublimate our learned social behavior and act as our basic nature dictates. During these moments, potential is uncovered, hidden beauty can be revealed, or ugliness unmasked. Unveiling these aspects of the protagonist exposes flaws that make them more believable people, it also provides depth and shows that person's potential for change.

6. Show the rules of the world at work. Simply because your novel will be sitting on the fantasy rack doesn't mean you can break rules on a whim. Yes, fantasy readers will suspend disbelief to an extent. However, a wise writer will start with the most plausible fantastic elements first.

Your best tools for getting a reader to buy into your fantasy are symmetries: something sacrificed for something gained, action versus reaction, cause and effect. If fantastic elements play a key role in the plot, whether derived from magic, fanciful creatures, or simply some skewed aspect of the world, then some hint or demonstration of the governing rules should play a role in the opening.

If the protagonist is in some way more confined by or less bound to those rules (or even an extension of them), you need to show or give evidence of this special relationship to the reader. Take special note of the word show. Do not explain. Later, we can find out what it meant. If the reader wonders what it was all about, that's fine as long as you hinted at the answer.

7. Introduce of the story question (needs and desires). Every protagonist worth his or her salt will have a question. This question may have nothing to do with the plot, but it does reflect their personal needs and motivations. Example questions: "Why me?", "Will I ever be happy?", "Why am I alone?", "Why did she have to die?", "Why go on living?", etc., etc. The story creator should know this question, and by the end of the story, answer it. Make sure this is on your list of things to accomplish by the story's denouement.

In every plot, there is a need line and a desire line. Characters follow their aspirations, but cannot be at peace until they've fulfilled their crucial life's necessity. Sometimes these two lines coincide -- sometimes not. Your opening question should be an introduction to the desire thread. As they struggle to get what they want, it should cross, or be at odds with, the thread of their need.

Good story structure dictates that the protagonist will at some point stand at the juncture between their needs and their desires. That decision is often a turning point in the story. A classic example is when the reluctant hero who has wanted to 'just be a farmer' his whole life decides to accept his fate as savior of the world (thus embracing what he really needs).

8. Establish tone and pace. Your opening scene sets the overall mood of your material, be it dark and gloomy, humorous, violent or whatever. This is where you play fair with the reader. If your piece on a whole is bloody and violent, then initial scene should resonate with that feeling. This is key. Imagine how you would feel if you bought a music CD whose cover advertised one kind of music, but after a few tracks inexplicably changed to some other variety. Not only would it jar you, but you'd probably be upset for being played the bait-and-switch trick. Rules broken for creative purposes can be effective, but this particular constant is touchy ground.

Eight rules -- are they too much?

If the construction is well handled, every one of these points can be touched upon in a single scene. When you have integrated these points into the start of the story, you can feel safe that you have a solid beginning.

If getting all those details into the initial scene seems a challenge, realize that a tightly scripted first paragraph can touch on all of these points and be still be accomplished in ten lines or less. It simply requires a close synthesis of selective detail, word choice, indirection, simile, and metaphor.

The real task is to find a way to make those eight separate ideas fit together. Use images, physical registers, and emotionally charged phrases to establish a focus on the character within an environmental context, drawing attention to "what's at stake". Integrate one of your world's rules into stakes or into the environmental context. If something important to the protagonist is threatened, you have your conflict. What remains is to ask a story question, and to depict the character displaying their signature characteristic. Your story's tone and pace will take care of itself simply by loading the opening paragraph with this writing approach.

Give it a try; you should be pleased with the results. Eschew details for simplicity. Concentrate on character and give the reader protagonists in an evocative situation where they can discover a new world.

Copyright © 2000 Will Greenway
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


First published in 1983, Will Greenway started his creative career wanting to draw and script comics. Aside from writing and art, Will is a self-taught programmer, PC technician, and network troubleshooter. He enjoys skiing, racquetball, Frisbee golf, and is steadfast supporter of role-playing games. He currently works as systems and software engineer for the San Diego command of Space and Naval Warfare Systems. To date, he has completed fifteen novels, more than a dozen short stories, and numerous articles on writing. He resides in the Bonita suburb of south San Diego with his wife, a Linux server, a closet full of comics, and around 200 anime DVDs. Greenway's "Ring Realms" novels, Reality's Plaything and A Knot in Time, are available from Writers Exchange. Visit his website at http://www.ringrealms.com/rrmainindex.php.

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