1. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    Do You Ever Not Know How to Start your Story?

    Discussion in 'Insights & Inspiration' started by A.M.P., Nov 22, 2014.

    Fiction writing is great, many of us are here to create fantastical worlds with colorful characters in hopes others will get lost in them just as we do when we read our favorite books.

    However, sometimes, it's hard to start or know what to say or not say or when to say. We create imaginative worlds with complex magic systems, Victorian-esque customs, philosophical government ideals, or any number of things that require explanation.

    In this month alone, I read countless new threads of new and experienced writers wondering "Where do I start my story?" or "Is my beginning good?" and even "How do I let readers know how my magic/government system works?". If you've ever asked yourself any of these questions and still struggle with it, I have two pieces of advice.

    I - Start as close to the inciting (What sets off the intrigue or action) incident. 8 times out of 10, this is the best place to begin a story as a reader will not need a lengthy explanation of their day, how they got there, or anything of the sort. Get the ball rolling, so to speak.

    II - Exposition is plain and simply not the optimum way to start your story. Your reader just picked up their book, most likely for entertainment purposes, and suddenly they're learning about the geography, monarchic history of the kingdom, and a bunch of wars that already ended. That's not what a reader is looking for at the very first sentence.

    This all ties in to the question YOU ask yourself when you pick up a book:

    "What is this about?"

    Sounds familiar right? How many times have you picked up a book and asked yourself that as you open up to the first page and see if this book interests you? Probably every time.

    There is a simple rule of thumb that's used in multiple disciplines, including in writing:

    Who is in this scene?
    What is happening?
    Where is this happening
    Why is this happening?
    When is this happening?

    Also known as the 5 Ws, this is key information that a reader needs to formulate the imagery necessary to get hooked into your story. No, you do not need to reveal everything in paragraph one but if in two pages most of these questions are not answered, your reader might not be able to sink himself into the book.

    Keeping this in mind; as a reader and not a writer, if you open a book and are bombarded with exposition information that means zip to you, will it answer "What is this about?" or will it just leave just as many if not more questions?

    So this is what it comes down to: if you ever wonder how to start, where to start, or what to reveal, think of the five W's and whether the questions "What is this about" is answered.
     
  2. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    Excellent advice!

    Can I also say that when you do start, there is absolutely nothing to stop you changing it if you decide that you started in the wrong place/time.
     
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  3. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    This is actually how I tend to start. I start writing wherever the story first presents itself to me. I own and I am at peace with the fact that these initial pages are very probably not the actual start to the story. They may get folded into a later portion or they may just be warm-up that eventually get's dumped.
     
  4. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Great stuff A.M.P. I wish I could remember this when I'm writing my novels. I tend to do okay in short stories. I just use the scene playing in my head and run with it it. But for novels trying to figure out when the story starts is the hardest. I'm always caught between - how much do I show of old life before the change happens or maybe I should just start with the change.
     
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  5. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't know if I'd worry about getting all those questions answered in the first two pages. Seems to be an easy way to fall into that bombardment of exposition. Sometimes (most times, from my own reading) it's better to reveal these things a bit at a time. A well-written book will keep the readers going in order to get to those answers.
     
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  6. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    I think those five questions are actually spot on, take the first one "who is in this scene?" If you apply 'this scene' to the end of each question then you can still drip feed further information through the book.

    I can answer each one of those in the first two pages of my book:

    Who is in this scene? Main female character and her father.
    What is happening? They are having an argument.
    Where is this happening? In the father's study at his home in Messenger Bay.
    Why is this happening? Because he's angry at something his daughter did.
    When is this happening? Present day.

    The fist two pages answer these questions but they don't actually give anything away in terms of the next 500-odd pages of the book but what they do, is make the reader ask the following questions:

    What did the daughter do that angered her father so much?
    Does the argument get resolved and if so, who backs down first?
    If the argument doesn't get resolved, who does what? Does she leave or does he stop her?
    (and the ultimate question that keeps the reader interested ...) What happens next?
     
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  7. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I could see that for some scenes, but answering them all for each scene could get boring very quickly. I would use them more for when a scene isn't working, to try to identify what was missing, but really, the 5 W's are more geared toward journalism than fiction.

    Thinking about it, it would also depend on the weight one gives each W - some have very little importance except as a means of letting the reader 'settle in' (for example, Where).
     
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  8. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I would edit it to add: the start of your story should introduce a basic question or dilemma that intrigues the reader.

    For example, Hunger Games, what hooked me was this simple question: What is the reaping that it's giving a little girl nightmares? (a mystery and with that, some kind of horror that will shock me is expected)

    Fault in Our Stars, the question was: What is death and what new insights can this girl who's dying of cancer teach me? (insight is expected)

    I've Got Your Number, a chick lit, the question was: How on earth did she lose her engagement ring and will she find it? (hilarity is expected)

    The opening:
    Mort, by Terry Pratchett (in the process of reading), the question was: Who is Death and why does he want this human boy as his apprentice? (mystery and a new world is expected)

    Book of Evidence (would like to start reading soon), the question was: Why did he kill her? (mystery and an interesting character is expected)

    All You Need is Kill (light novel and manga, adapted into Tom Cruise film Edge of Tomorrow), the question was: What the hell just happened? (mystery and something earth-shattering are expected)

    Manga opening (slightly graphic):
    http://www.mangatown.com/manga/all_you_need_is_kill/c001/3.html

    Sister of My Heart, the question was: Who are these girls and what's their world like? (immersion into the Indian culture expressed in exquisite language, and the mystery of the Indian way, and interesting characters are expected)

    The opening:
    With the exception of Mort and Book of Evidence, I've read all of the above cover to cover and loved them. They're all very different in genre, as you can see. But each of them proposed a question. Saying, "Make your readers care" is unhelpful, in my opinion. But make your readers ask a question - now that's achievable :) It's important that the reader should have one intriguing question to ask (and whether that question intrigues will depend on how you present the situation), and with that question, the reader should have some expectation, something they're reading for, something they're reading in order to find out. That's all you need for them to keep reading.

    And if a grand exciting opening isn't possible and your prose isn't so poetic and exquisite that you trust it could draw readers immediately, I'd say, then go for writing simply. Nothing makes your head hurt more than reading convoluted sentences! If it's easy to read, likely the reader will read on to the next sentence at least, which gives you a little more time to engage the reader. But if it's full of complicated names and odd sentence structures, likely they'd just put the book down. It's not to say you can't write elaborately, but I don't think the first paragraph is a good place for it. (and if it's elaborate, as Sister of My Heart is in its opening, then it better be beautiful and present interesting - genuinely interesting - details)

    Sorry I only found 2 openings but it's taking too much time to find them all that I can just copy and paste.
     
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2014
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  9. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah, the 5Ws, to me, would be fine as long as it's a totally surface gloss on each of them. But to get really IN to some of them especially the "Why", would seem likely to produce an info-dump.

    Sometimes I like to read on in order to find out why something is happening.
     
  10. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    Now that, I heartily agree with but I think it's a great idea for the start of the story as I think they are important things that the reader needs to know from the start, almost like a hook. The rest of the story can come and go as you please but I honestly think answering those questions in the first couple of pages - albeit giving your reader ultimately more questions - is a good way to hook readers into the story.
     
  11. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    Sometimes, it's also the way we - as writers - interpret those questions. For the question of 'where?' I was happy to answer 'her father's study' obviously I'm not going to write the whole address there, there's absolutely no reason at that point for the reader to know that the study is in a detached house with a stone portico situated on the edge of Oneida Lake in New York State and looks out over a patio onto a manicured lawn with a willow tree by the water, the branches of which almost graze the ground as they sway in the light breeze ... (the willow tree comes in book two) :-D
     
  12. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    Fab points! I like the questions. I also like to answer a question with something that sometimes leads onto another question, even if that question is just "why?"
     
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  13. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    @shadowwalker
    Yes, you got it spot on. There has to be interest to keep reading because the reader curiosity has been peaked.

    However, I did not mean to write in great lengthy details about the 5 Ws. That'd be just as bad as plain old fashion exposition.

    What I mean is that the reader has to be able to form imagery and that they must ask themselves a question as they discover more and more because that's what makes us readers keep reading but it can't be done at all if there is nothing to latch unto.

    The why can be tricky to not be an info dump but think of it this way: there is more than one way to make a reader understand a character is in a place where he doesn't belong and is robbing the joint without ever explicitly saying. Tone, the usage of words, subtext.

    It's not like an essay where you need a straight answer. There is style and techniques that answer and give information without ever saying it.
     
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  14. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    Yep. I also like to mislead. I like to send my readers in one direction, make them think they know what's going to happen and then hit them with something completely different but just as plausible. I call them my 'omg moments'.

    (As it happens, I'm just working on one now and it's 1.14am here in the UK so if I start to waffle on, it means the caffeine's wore off and I need a refill and ... OK, off to put the kettle on because I can see I'm waffling ...)
     
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  15. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    I call them my "holy shit" moments. :) It's cool to see someone else has a name for that.
     
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  16. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    That is a great name for OMG moments! Holy Shit moments! Fab!
     
  17. bossfearless
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    bossfearless Active Member

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    I'd been vacillating over how to start the second book of my series for a while now. This happens a lot. I'll have a vague idea but it's not really popping, not really making me want to sit down and write, just kind of a boring gray gruel of the mind. And then I'll have a silly thought and I can usually start from there. In this case, I thought about two dragons fucking. And then I thought, what if it was two tiny dragons fucking on the coffee table, just out of nowhere? Wake up, the house is trashed, you're hung over as hell, there's no more pizza left, and then you notice there are these two dragons going at it like maniacs on your coffee table, just hammering away while spewing fire all over the place, and then all you can do is just pop open another beer, pull up a seat and watch that shit. Because honestly, how often does that happen?

    My best chapters, ideas, stories, etc. all come from one good opening line. Just one good line that makes you want to keep writing. Here are two that spring to mind:

    "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." -- Stephen King
    "The building was on fire, and it wasn't my fault." -- Jim Butcher.
    "In scant few years, all the nations of the world would fall to ruin because of sausages." -- Me. Shameless self-promotion lol.

    Just try to find that magic line that makes you want to write more, because chances are that's the line that will make readers want to keep going.
     
  18. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    OK, not going to lie, if I read a book with that opening, I'm going to keep reading to see what happens next.
     
  19. bossfearless
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    bossfearless Active Member

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    I woke up to a pair of dragons screwing on my coffee table. Okay, backtrack a minute, I actually woke up to the sound of two dragons screwing on my coffee table, which is something like a screeching tire combined with the rushing wind of a flamethrower. In other words, it's not something you want to hear when you're hung over and hungry.

    Blinking groggily and discarding my pointy paper party hat. I wandered through my apartment and dodged around the various piles of detritus, pizza boxes and empty bottles and what was either a puddle of vomit or a spilled bowl of chili. I couldn't help but notice that there were two winged lizards, one red and one blue, jack-hammering in the middle of my living room. The red one seemed to be dominant, at least in that it was on top and clearly enjoying itself. Couldn't tell you what the blue one was thinking, because it was just flailing its head and neck around with flames spewing out of its throat nonstop like a high pressure fire hose, only with actual fire this time.

    Good for them, I thought. At least somebody got laid last night.

    ((Couldn't help myself, this is now officially the beginning of Fire Sail))
     
  20. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    *spits out coffee*

    Oh God, please write that! xD
     
  21. bossfearless
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    bossfearless Active Member

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    See, I get that reaction all the freaking time, but I can't get one single beta reader to finish first my book. Okay, one did. One, out of like twelve, and he's the only one who even opened it. Le sigh. Endings are harder than beginnings for me.
     
  22. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    So one opened it, and he finished it?

    Either he's a paragon, or your book can't have been that bad. The eleven who didn't even open it, on the other hand...
     
  23. Dunning Kruger
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    Dunning Kruger Active Member

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    I dont think I've ever read a better beginning to anything. I love it!
     
  24. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    I'd make sure no one was reading over my shoulder in case they think it's dragon smut :p
     
  25. bossfearless
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    bossfearless Active Member

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    I really hope it's the latter. But honestly he's probably pretty awesome too. I'll do another beta once I re-tool the ending and fix a few slumps in the plot. This time I finally have enough posts here to use the collaboration forum, so I might get more than one good beta reader out of it lol.
     

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