I used to hate writing story openings. I could never find the right spot the first time around. Sometimes, I started too far into the current story, leaving readers scratching their heads and squinting as they tried to figure out what the heck was going on. Other times, I started too early—well before the current story began, and readers yawned as they slogged through backstory dumps or long passages where nothing important was happening.
I know I’m not alone in this; it’s a common problem I see when critiquing first pages. But I’ve found a few tricks for finding that sweet spot so it doesn’t come too early or too far into the story.
First, it’s typically best to begin the story in medias res. I can’t remember who first coined this term in regards to writing, but it’s a gem. When you’re starting a story, you want to begin in medias res—“in the middle.” What this means is that you want to start your story once it’s already underway.
As authors, we’re always worried that our readers aren’t going to understand what we’re trying to show. This is especially true in the beginning, where there’s so much backstory we think is critical to a reader’s understanding. So we back up to a point where that backstory can be revealed. While we think we’re being helpful, this is a real drag for readers, who are forced to slog their way through pages of backstory info dumps that drag the pace and cause their interest to flag. Sometimes we take readers so far into the past that the characters aren’t even the ones in the current story, or they’re significantly different due to age or circumstances. (Hello, prologue—a topic for another blog post, but if you’re looking for tips on how and why prologues can work, check this out.)
Readers pick up a book because they want to get lost in it right away. They want the characters on page one to be the ones they’re going to get invested in and become attached to. This is best achieved if they start reading in the middle of the character’s current story.
And…where would that be? To find that sweet spot, look at your story as a whole and consider the first two parts of it. Blake Snyder (Save the Cat) calls these story parts beats, so I’ll go with that terminology.
The first beat in your story is the set-up. This is where the reader is introduced to your character in his regular world. The purpose of the set-up is to show your character’s normal life, before it’s turned upside down. It’s Bilbo sitting on his doorstep blowing smoke rings, seemingly happy and content until Gandalf shows up. It’s Katniss going about her everyday (albeit sucky) life prior to the reaping. The point of the setup is to show the reader that while the character may seem to be content, something is missing. There’s something about him or his world that needs to be corrected if he’s going to be truly happy and satisfied.
Then something happens that threatens his world. This second beat is called the catalyst, and it requires the character to make a choice that will propel him out of his current world and into a new one. Here are some examples of catalysts from popular stories and movies:
- Prim’s name is called in the reaping (The Hunger Games)
- Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle are killed (Star Wars: A New Hope)
- Elle Woods’ fiancé dumps her (Legally Blonde)
- Bilbo is left behind when the dwarves leave for their adventure without him (The Hobbit)
- Harry Potter receives his letter from Hogwarts (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
According to Snyder, the catalyst should fall roughly 12% into your story. This statistic is a beautiful thing because you can take it as a loose guideline or you can swear by it, whichever fits your style. If you want to go crazy, look at your overall page count, get out your calculator, figure out where 12% is, and get your catalyst as close to that point as you can. If your windpipe is closing off just thinking about that, then eyeball it. Make an educated guess and go from there.
This structure will give you a good idea of where to start your story because if you know the catalyst should start at roughly the 12% point, you’ll know how much set up should come before. Have you got too much? You’ve started too early and need to cull some of that to start your story a little later. Is there not enough set up? You’ve started too late and readers won’t have that necessary view of the character in his regular world. Start a bit earlier.
So, to recap: 1) know your set-up and catalyst, and 2) include enough set up so the catalyst falls roughly 12% into the overall story. If you strive for this, you’ve got a great shot at starting in a place that’s not too early and not too late. You might not get it right the first time, but you’ll be pretty close and will likely avoid having to rewrite the opening multiple times.
I should also point out that One Stop For Writers has an excellent Story Maps tool that allows you to lay out ALL the major turning points in your story. So if you find structure overall to be tricky, it’s worth checking out.