Welcome to the fourth week of NaNoWriMo, where once again I will need a miracle—or a very long car ride—to reach my goal. For the last two weeks, I have talked about how I plan stories, and I’m continuing that this week. At this point in my planning process, I have an idea for an ending and an idea for a climax. Now it’s time for me to figure out how I’m going to start this story.
There is a lot of advice out there for how to begin a story. Some people say begin with action. Others say begin where it seems most natural to begin. In the first five hundred words, you want to give the reader some indication of the world the story is set in—whether real or fantastic. You want to introduce the main characters. If you can work in the main conflict of the story, that’s great. And while you’re doing all of this, you also want to get a hook around your reader’s neck, drag them into the story, and don’t let them go.
Some advice that I’ve heard a lot is that you want to start the story as late as you possibly can. You don’t need to include every single thing that takes place before the story actually begins. Any important backstory should be sprinkled in throughout the beginning and middle of the story.
I generally find that this is a lot to take in and a lot of advice to try to follow in my first pass through the beginning. So usually, as I’m planning and even as I’m writing the first draft of my beginning, I just try to focus on finding the right place to begin. The rest will come as I write, or else it will come as I rewrite. And more often than not, once I have a complete draft, I will be rewriting the whole beginning to start somewhere else that works better for the story. Only at that point do I allow myself to get neurotic about how much setting and character and action and whatever else I cram into my first page.
But for the purposes of writing a first draft, I just need a place to start. And to find that starting-point, I look at two things: the inciting incident and the ending.
The inciting incident of a story is the point where the plot finds the protagonist. From that point on, the story is driven by a combination of the problem presented by the plot and the protagonist’s goals. Usually, the inciting incident is a major change in the status quo of the characters’ lives, and it forces the protagonist into the action of the story, whether they want to be there or not. In my experience, it is best to start the story as close to the inciting incident as possible. That could be slightly before the inciting incident, right in the middle of the inciting incident, or even slightly after it.
Most stories start slightly before the inciting incident, allowing the reader to get a feel for the character and the setting before everything changes. If this is the case, the inciting incident should happen fairly quickly—by the end of the first chapter if possible.
Starting the story in the middle of the inciting incident is also a possibility. Starting in medias res like this has the advantage of excitement and possibly action to grab the reader’s attention, but it also means that the reader doesn’t yet know why they should care about these characters and their problems.
Finally, you can start the story right after the inciting incident. This works especially well if the incident itself is what allows the action of the story to happen, but it isn’t necessary for the reader to see the moment itself. I have done this only once that I can think of, in my short story “Dissonance,” which you will be able to read in about a month. The inciting incident of “Dissonance” is a fire. This fire allows the conductor of the orchestra to see the troubled clarinetist and to reach out to help her. But it isn’t necessary for the reader to see the fire itself, so I start the story the day after the fire, with the conductor dealing with its aftermath and trying to keep his grieving orchestra together.
Sometimes, it can be hard to pinpoint the exact inciting incident of a story. I find it can be tricky with stories I read, and sometimes even trickier with stories I write. I’ve built up this whole world inside my head, and I have these characters and their problems and their backstories, and of course it’s all vital to the story, so I should write all of it.
Or so I think.
The truth is, most of it probably isn’t vital to the story and isn’t necessary to include right in the beginning.
So to figure out what the inciting incident is, I look again at the main problem of the story and the main characters’ goals—protagonist and antagonist alike. I prune away what isn’t essential to that—even if I later decide to include it in the story anyway—and this allows me to see the bones of my idea. I ask myself: What is the problem? What does the main character want? What is preventing them from obtaining that goal? What is the point when the character starts actively pursuing that want and opposing the forces working to stop them from attaining this goal? That, there, is almost always the inciting incident. The inciting incident can also be the moment, without which, there would not be a story.
Once I have my inciting incident in mind, I then decide where the best place to begin is, depending on the story. Is it necessary for the reader to see the inciting incident? Do I want the reader to have some knowledge of the character and the setting, or do I want the reader to care about the protagonist, before the inciting incident makes everything go haywire? Do I want the action of beginning just before or right in the middle of the inciting incident to hook the reader? Depending on the genre and hoped-for length of the story I’m planning, as well as its overall shape, I decide where I want to begin relative to the inciting incident.
Finally, I think about the specific scene I want to open with. This is the part where the ending and the climax that I have already planned come into play. I look at my idea for the ending, the solution to the problem and the moment when the protagonist realizes what they have learned. I think about the climax, where the problem is confronted and the protagonist’s growth is tested. And one very simple thing I try to do is put the protagonist in a situation where they are facing a similar problem they will face later on in the climax—though usually much less nuanced than the climax will be. The character can either succeed or fail at the problem they face in the beginning, but how they solve it now, and how they solve a similar problem in the final act of the story, should demonstrate how the character grows and changes. Another similar option is to do something in the beginning that reflects an overarching theme of the story. Since sometimes it’s hard to know what any of the overarching themes of the story are, I usually don’t try to do this on a first draft and only attempt it on a revision.
Finding the perfect beginning is actually really hard for me. I have the ending and the climax, maybe some scattered scenes and ideas for the middle. I’m excited about this story. But I can’t begin until I have a scene in mind. Sometimes I can’t even begin until I have a first line in my head. This whole beginning will probably change. Usually, I have just found a starting place, and it is by no means the perfect one. It’s enough to get me going, though, and once I have a better sense of the whole story, I will be able to revise it into the beginning I need.
What I always remind myself, whether I’m on a first draft or a revision, is that the beginning is the first part of the story the reader will see. It is the moment when your readers meet your characters, enter your world, and face the problems of your story for the first time. You’re job, as a writer, is to invite them to stay, even to demand that they stay, and keep reading. Your story is a journey—for you and for your readers—and a journey begins with just a single step. But it is up to you where you place your feet.