Let’s start a story. In order to get the most out of this, I’m going to assume you already have an outline, or at least an idea of what you hope to accomplish. I’m also going to assume you’ve gone to the fictional character draft and picked a character or two with some upside. Finally, I’m going to assume you’ve decided what tense you’re going to present this story in.
How do you start this locomotive moving down the tracks? I’m going to offer some suggestions and a few pitfalls you might want to avoid.
Many experts insist your first sentence has to have hook in it. Something like this, “All children, except one, grow up.” I’m not that strict, and look at all writing rules more like guidelines. I’ll grant this about hooks: couldn’t hurt. What you really need is a reason for a reader to turn the page. It doesn’t have to be the first line, or a hook, but it couldn’t hurt.
This goes back to my old advice of not giving someone a reason to say no. Your cover got them to look, the blurb made them open the cover, now you have to give readers a reason to turn that page.
A character is my preferred way of doing this. And I mean just one character. If they’re interacting with someone, I prefer a nameless faceless person in the book. Someone like a bank customer or a telemarketer. This is because we’re just meeting the protagonist for the first time. It needs to be all about him or her.
I recently did some critique work for someone who introduced about seven named characters in five pages. I was so confused I didn’t even know who the main one was. I had to work for it, and this author gave me multiple reasons to say no.
Think of introductions like dating. The reader is meeting the character for the first time. Treat it with that kind of respect. Don’t let your character send this kind of initial message: Hey, I thought you were cute when you sold me my morning coffee. I’d like to have sex with you tonight, does eight o’clock work for you?
Take a bit of time to establish interest for the reader. Give the reader a reason to care.
One of the best bits of writing advice is a popular quote I stumble across online. It goes something like this: All stories begin with a person, in a place, with a problem. It’s pretty good advice too.
This should be the focus of your first chapter; person, place, problem. Ask yourself why readers should care about this character.
Let’s call our character Mandi. I’m more of the no-description-at-all mindset, but I usually give a couple of details anyway. I like readers to imagine for themselves. Someone taught me that if I give the readers three things, they can imagine the rest. Seems logical to me.
I might be an extreme kind of reader, so a bit of description helps me cast a wider net. In my current project, my main character get’s two descriptions in the entire story. We learn she is brunette, and she considers herself to have a long face. I’ll probably add a dress size later on.
Give your readers something about the setting to ground them. You can also give three points here. In a modern setting, you might need nothing more than “a bank” for setting. Readers can imagine that however they like. It can be one of those corner branches that seem to pop up everywhere, or an old granite and brick monument to commerce of some kind. One caveat, if it matters to the story give more detail. If you’re writing something like science fiction or fantasy, you’ll need more description than you would in our world.
I’ve been accused of white page syndrome when it comes to setting, and I’ll own that. I like to let readers imagine anything that is of lesser importance. I spell out the places that matter. Setting can really help with mood too, but my personal belief is that mood isn’t as important right up front.
The problem is what really matters. You need to get to it, and soon. If your story needs some time before the big problem, and some of them do, then you need a substitute problem up front.
A substitute problem might not be the main one in the story, but it should still be important. It can focus on a character flaw instead. We’ve met Mandi, and she’s stuck on the phone with a telemarketer. It’s a small problem, but we can work with that.
First of all, it’s happened to all of our readers. This is important, because they can relate. It also reveals that maybe Mandi is a bit of a doormat. We don’t need to know that her father beat manners into her head from the day she was born. That can come out later. Right now, we have a distressed character.
Now we can make Mandi’s flaw into a real problem for her. Her line at the bank is backing up and her boss is tapping his watch to get her to hurry up. Maybe he even pushes her aside and helps the customers himself.
This has nothing to do with the dead telemarketer who is found on her doorstep in chapter two. That’s because it’s a substitute problem.
Please notice that we didn’t meet Mandi while she was waking up, and she never once looked in the mirror. In modern fiction, these kind of openings are so overdone they are frowned upon. Don’t give them a reason to say no.
Some of you may be saying, “Fine, Craig, but I don’t write murder mysteries about bank tellers.” You have to work with me here a bit. Remember they’re guidelines.
Maybe Mandi is a starship captain whose check-engine light just came on lightyears away from the dealership. Readers will pick up on that. Maybe it isn’t a huge problem, but they’ll remember it, and they’ll relate to it too. It’s up to you to make it a problem.
The next thing I see done is diving right into backstory. To be honest, some tales need a bit of backstory. Many don’t. Go back to the dating email above. At least kiss your reader first. Chances are you need much less backstory than you think. We can learn all about Mandi’s abusive father later. Maybe even chapters later. Maybe she can dwell on it briefly while waiting in a cell for the police to question her about the dead telemarketer. Hint: Send the cop in soon.
We don’t need to know Mandi’s life story up to the point of the telemarketer call. We sympathize with her, she’s relatable, she has a problem. Let’s go find that body.