How not to start your story
Right, before you sharpen your pitchforks, I want to make it clear that this blog is not going to be one of those preachy My Way is the Right Way kind of posts. In fact, I’m a very big advocate for just letting people write their stories however the fudge they want to. Every writer has their own unique style and whatever works for them is the *right* way.
My aim here is to do something a little similar to an earlier blog post about finding value in common writing advice. Don’t use adverbs. Write every day. Always start with an outline. Too often, this advice is presented as a One Size Fits All and that’s just not the case. So I dissected these common nuggets of well-intended wisdom and tried to show what they mean at their core and how you can apply them to your own writing.
I want to do that with this topic, too: how to open a story. Because, folks, there are *opinions* about this. Never use a prologue. Don’t have your characters wake up on page one. Start with action. And, like with other writing advice, a lot of this is taken at its word – but I think there are layers here. On the surface, they’re a little rigid and stifling, but underneath there is meaning and rationale, and that’s what I want to explore.
So let’s do that!
Never open with a prologue
This is the one I hear most often, so it seems fitting to start with it. I also enjoy the delicious irony of… you know… opening with prologues.
Now, I’m not going to go into this in too much detail because I’ve already covered the topic in my writing advice post and in a blog entirely dedicated to whether you should use a prologue or not. But I want to draw attention to why this advice is given and whether you should pay it any heed.
The reason so many readers dislike prologues is because they are often one (or more) of three things:
A big ol’ chunk of exposition akin to the ‘previously on…’ monologues we get before the next episode of a TV show.
Throat-clearing, by which I mean the writer needed to pen this scene in order to get to where the story really started, but then didn’t want to cut the introduction.
A world-building encyclopaedia that details all the little things the writer thinks the reader ought to know about this world before they let us in.
Very often, the information in a prologue can be woven into the story elsewhere, or the author has to trust that the reader will just ‘get it’ without being spoon-fed. Of course, there are some instances where prologues work well, and my post about them mentions a couple, which is why I think this advice can’t be taken at face value.
That said, it’s important to note that many readers will skip past prologues. If you do decide to include one, bear in mind that the story needs to make sense on its own, too.
Don’t start with a character waking up
This one, I think, sits alongside that oft misunderstood piece of advice to ‘write what you know’. ‘Write what you know’ does not mean you should only write within your limited worldview. What it means is that you should know about what you’re writing about. Want to write a story about a medieval knight but you were born several hundred years too late to have been one yourself? That doesn’t mean you can’t write about them – it means you ought to research medieval knights to the point you know enough about them to write one well.
The same applies to not starting your story with a character waking up. It doesn’t mean what it literally says. Of course you can start a story this way. Metamorphosis opens with Gregor Samsa waking up. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy opens with Arthur Dent waking up. You can open a story this way, folks.
What it means is don’t be boring. Don’t be mundane. Don’t give me a character’s boring morning routine that is exactly the same as my boring morning routine unless seeing this boring morning routine is pivotal to the story.
Let’s look at the two examples I gave. In Metamorphosis, the opening line is 'As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect.’ Waking up is boring. Waking up as a giant insect? Less boring.
In Hitchhiker’s Guide, the first chapter sees Arthur Dent waking up, brushing his teeth, shaving, getting his breakfast, but all of it is punctuated by the odd presence of numerous bulldozers. The routine is mundane, but the context of the scene is not. It shows us that Arthur Dent’s day starts normally but there is something not quite right.
Start with action… or, maybe don’t?
The opposite of starting your story with a character waking up, is starting with your character in immediate danger. You would think that opening with a fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled chase scene would be exciting, but on page one we don’t know the character yet. We haven’t bonded with them – positively or negatively. They’re just existing and we can’t really care about the danger they’re in because… well, who are they?
Until we know what this character is capable of, a little of why they’re in this situation, a hint of whether it’s their fault or not, and what is at stake if they do or don’t get out of it, then the suspense is just a little empty. Let me get to know the character first, so I can be afraid for him.
So what do people mean when they say start with action? Quite simply it just means to start with the story moving. Have a bit of pace, some dialogue, some conflict. We don’t need characters throwing punches, just a scene with a little bit of punch, capiche?
The golden rule for opening a story
Are you ready for this? Because it’s ground-breaking. You should probably sit down if you’re not already. Okay, here it is. The golden rule for opening a story:
The book should begin where the story begins.
Woah. I know, right? Heavy stuff. But seriously, that’s really all there is to it. Whether you use a prologue or have your character waking up, the *right* way to open a story is wherever the story begins.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy could have started two weeks before Arthur’s house is set to be demolished. We could have spent time getting to know Arthur and his slow, ordinary life. But the story starts the day the bulldozers arrive, and so that’s where the book begins.
So when it comes to your own story, ask yourself this one important question: when does the story start?
You might not know this in your first draft, or even in your fifth, sixth, seventh draft. Openings are hard, and it doesn’t help that they’re so important – that’s a lot of pressure to get it right. You may realise on your eighth round of edits that Chapter 5 is actually where the story begins, and you just needed to write Chapters 1 through 4 to get yourself there. Remember what I said earlier about throat-clearing? Now it’s time to cut those early chapters and let your story begin where it begins.