One of the banes of many authors is how to begin a story. You’ve got the concept and several scenes worked out, but somehow you have to get the first scene started.
We probably all struggled with this at some time. You paint an opening setting with artfully chosen words and introduce your main character… but the character is just… there! Now you have to come up with a reason why your character is in that place at that time, about to experience whatever torments your sadistic author mind has in store for them.
So now what do you do? One possibility is to jump into quick action. Something happens that leads into the plot of the story. Another way around those first few paragraphs is something I’ve seen done so artistically that I feel there should be a name for the plot device. This is to start with something that has little or nothing to do with the main plot, but places the character in the way of what’s to come.
For example, in the movie, Die Hard, Bruce Willis’ character wants to see his wife, who isn’t exactly estranged but has been living thousands of miles away from him because of a job opportunity. This places him at a Christmas party in Nakatomi Tower, a place he would normally never be found, just in time for the main plot to run over his world with a steamroller, an apparent terrorist attack.
One of the devices the writer used at the beginning of the film was a conversation with a stranger on the plane about his fear of flying. This phobia didn’t play a part in the main action of the film, but taking his shoes off to connect with the ground as suggested by his fellow traveller not only added some whimsical action to get an impression of his character, but left him with his shoes off in a later scene where shattered glass would pose a problem.
In books, I’ve seen a similar sort of starting point used well. For example, in A Halloween Tale by Austin Crawley, the story starts out with a teenage boy trying to catch a frog. The frog has no connection to the main plot line, except that the pond he came from belongs to the property across the street and one house down from the local neighbourhood ‘haunted house’. That house and the weird things that happen inside are everything to do with the story, plus the boy and his companions are all primary characters.
Similarly in Skyward by Brandon Sanderson, the story starts out with a girl going on an excursion through the caverns with her father. Her talent for hunting rats, her reaction to seeing the sky for the first time and her agility in underground travel will all play a part in her story, but in that prologue, she’s just a girl who is adept with a spear gun and enjoying spending time with her father.
Beginning a story with self-contained action gives the writer an opportunity to show the reader the personality of an important character, perhaps even the protagonist. It sets the scene without having to launch into the main plot too quickly and when done well as in the above two examples, it affords a chance to describe the setting through the eyes of the chosen character and set up the scene for the plot to begin.
This is something I’m finding useful in my current WIP, a Fantasy book in a setting that requires substantial explanation. Instead of droning on with excess description, setting my main character to hunting for food among some unusual terrain is painting a picture for the reader while their attention is on the action of the hunt.
Do you find starting a new story difficult? What devices do you use to get the action flowing
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