How to Begin a Story

I’ve written a couple of posts about beginning a story, but I thought I’d come at this subject from a slightly different angle. Lately I’ve had a few people congratulate me on being a writer, while in the same breath proclaiming that they would love to write a book but wouldn’t know where to begin. This is not so much an “anyone can be a writer” post as it is some (hopefully helpful) tips on how to actually get started.

Start writing something. This is the simplest step, but often the hardest. Just put a few sentences on the page. If the story begins slowly, awkwardly, or just plain wrong, you can always fix it later. Even the best first draft needs revising, editing, and probably rewriting – don’t stress about producing a publishing-worthy book before you’ve ever written a line.

Introduce the main character. This doesn’t have to be done in the first line or even first paragraph, but very early in the story (like in the first scene or chapter) the main character should either make an appearance or be referenced strongly in some way. After all, even plot-driven stories are still about characters. If you wind up writing twenty pages of boring day-in-the-life stuff about your character that you cut from the rewrites, that’s okay – it’s a great exercise in getting to know your character and their world, and it gets your creativity flowing.

Save the polished first line for the rewrite phase. As I’ve already emphasized, it’s okay to write mediocre and uninspired prose while you’re first getting going – it’s the action of writing that helps you improve your actual writing. While we all want that magic hook or that memorable first line that people will be quoting for decades to come, it’s probably not going to be the actual first thing that you write down.

Begin later in the story than you think is appropriate. This is one that I’m slowly learning myself. If you’re a plotter or outliner (like me), or you tend to be overly wordy in your first drafts (like me), chances are you’ll start your story way too early on in the plot. Like I said before, it’s okay to write pages and pages of boring drivel about your character’s daily habits, elaborate back story, and deep thoughts – but most of that should get cut (and/or mixed in throughout the story) in revision mode. I once began an epic fantasy story, and wrote probably at least 20,000 words of it before I realized that I hadn’t yet arrived at the start of the main plot. So I saved that novella-length prologue for the first half of an entirely different book, wrote a new beginning that started about five scenes into the main plot, and it was a much better start to the story.

What are some of your favorite ways to jump-start a story or get yourself into the writing process?