“Where do I start my story?” must be the question writers most frequently ask, whether of others or themselves, yet it is impossible to answer, except with the vague suggestion to start with action. Not, of course, that you cannot start with a description or witty observation, but they will need to be very arresting to seize the readers’ attention.
Action, though, is a little misleading. People tend to assume action must be spectacular, a murder or an explosion, but even in a thriller, that isn’t necessarily so. Action can be low-key, too. Even in the case of an explosion, it isn’t necessary to start with the bang – you could begin with the bomb being planted or even a couple arguing only to be interrupted by this sudden blast: All that matters is that the reader is hooked. You could even cheat a little – rather than the main murder, you could begin with the killer offing an accomplice whose death will remain unknown to the investigators for some or all of the story.
Short stories and, especially flash fiction, are easier than novels as they usually consist of a single scene or a few closely-linked scenes: Begin at the beginning and continue till the end. In a novel, not only do you have multiple scenes to choose from, with the complication of flashbacks, flashforwards and subplots, but you need to maintain and build tension over a much longer span. A really powerful piece of action might make a great opening, but could leave the reader underwhelmed by what follows if you’re not careful.
Let’s imagine a murder mystery: Two friends have an argument, which leads to one being murdered; after the funeral, at the reading of the will, a discovery is made that reveals they were murdered and prompts an investigation. Now, ignoring other tricks, like starting with the ending or the murder of an accomplice, where do we begin?
We could ‘begin at the beginning’ – but, where does the story begin? The start of the investigation, or perhaps more effectively, the revelation at the will-reading, would work. Or, how about at the funeral, as a lead-in to the discovery, perhaps with some foreshadowing of the revelation? Or, we could start with some real action: the murder itself. Or, we could begin with the argument that sets events in motion.
But, those aren’t the only options. The story could begin with the aftermath of the murder or some way into the investigation. Equally, the story could begin between the argument and the murder. Or, we could start well before the argument by inventing some other event, probably a piece of fairly low-key action, for the opening paragraph, and then developing the characters and the reasons why they argue. That’s nine alternatives before we even consider anything sneakier.
But, which one do you pick? That’s up to you – you decide which one appeals the most.
HP Lovecraft made a point of creating timelines of events in his stories so that, no matter where he began the narrative and regardless of the order in which events unfolded on the page, he knew the actual order they occurred in, who was where, etc. Even if you’re not much of a planner, a loose outline of the early parts of your story can be a good way of identifying potential starting points.
Indeed, you could take this a step further and write your story in chronological order from the earliest relevant event, before going back and deciding where to begin the finished story. This might involve cutting some text, perhaps recycling some as backstory, or it could be relocated to serve as flashbacks; or you could move something back to serve as a flashforward. You will probably need to do some rewriting to cover excised details that are important to the plot and to make the new opening work properly as an introduction (you may, for example, find the descriptions of key characters are in earlier, deleted sections), but this is likely to be far easier than staring at a blank page, trying to envisage how to start.
Remember, once you reach the end, you can always rewrite your beginning. So, don’t worry too much. Get started, get writing and you’ll get there eventually.