The hardest concept for most writers to understand is exactly what the first page/first paragraph of a story should have in it and why it’s so important to get it right.
Rationally, most people think of those first few lines, first few pages, as the beginning of the story. And, because they see that first line, first paragraph, first page as the place where they begin to tell their story, they want to be sure the reader understands where the story comes from. So, instead of getting INTO the story in those first few paragraphs/pages, they start with telling the reader how/why the story happened. In other words, instead of starting IN the story, they start with the backstory.
Here’s why this is a bad idea. Readers aren’t interested in the backstory; they’re interested in the story. Plus, the backstory is going to give readers too much information; it is going to tell them how to think about the story before they even get a chance to meet the main character. Readers don’t like to have everything explained for them. They also don’t like being told what to think. In fact, readers read because they enjoy discovering for themselves what the story is going to be about.
So, how can you get beyond the backstory?
Sit down and start writing. Write as fast as you can. Go ahead and talk to yourself while you’re doing it. Put down every bit of information you can. Write fast. Write long.
When you get tired, stop. Leave the room. Fix a cup of tea. Go back to your office and close the door. Read what you’re written out loud. Be honest. Where does you story start to be a story, not just a bunch of background information? When does it feel like it is lifting off the page, full of promise?
That’s where your story begins. Throw everything else away. You won’t need it.
One of the most important things to do as a writer is to trust yourself when you get the feeling that your story is coming to life. The second most important thing is learning how to trust your writing enough to throw out what isn’t working, what doesn’t feel alive.
Once you feel your story come alive, you know you’ve got a beginning. Go with it. Write to the end, then come back around and see how you can rewrite, tweak a bit here and there to really define your story. Think of this rewriting as not only a way to make your opening sentence really come alive, but also give your story direction.
So, now that you’ve found the beginning, let’s dig a little deeper. What if you reframed those first few lines, first few paragraphs and pages as a promise you are about to make to your reader, a promise of what the story is going to be about rather than the beginning of your story. Better yet, what if you began your story by using those first few words/lines to make a promise to your readers of what kind of story they’re going to read as well as a little bit about the story, i.e. what the reader should expect to learn. Think of it as a sacred promise, one you had better keep, or you will, for sure, lose your reader.
Let’s say your story starts with a dead body on the floor on page one. What’s the promise here? More likely than not, you’re promising the reader they have just started a murder mystery rather than a comedy, unless there’s something funny on that first page.
And, here’s the problem with writing that opening scene and those first few good lines: they not only need to give the readers a timeframe and setting for the story and introduce the main character; the start should also foreshadow where the story is going.
First lines are hard. In fact, they are, and should be, the hardest lines you will ever write in a story or a novel…or even a press release. They have to work. Therefore, you will write and rewrite those first few lines more than a dozen times before you get them right. The hard truth is, until you get to the end of your story, you won’t know precisely what needs to go into those first words.
Good stories are a lot like a beautiful graduated pearl necklace. That first small pearl leads to the next, then the next, until you get to that one big pearl, then the pearls get gradually smaller again until that last pearl at the clasp that is the same as the first pearl at the other side of the clasp.
In a sense, the story starts, grows, comes to a moment when/where the main character gets or doesn’t get what he or she wants or the problem is solved or the character dramatically changes. This is that big pearl. But, all the other pearls, the little ones that get bigger and bigger as they move toward that big pearl, are all related and grow the story, just as they grow. That growth is part of the story.
Once we come to that big pearl, we are at that point of change in the story, and everything that follows that big pearl tells what happens to the character AFTER that big moment in the story.
But, the most important element in this beautiful necklace is that the first and the last pearl match and come together to close the necklace. All the pieces have to fit and work together. The order of the pearls matters, because, if they are strung out of order, the necklace won’t hang right.
Think of that necklace as the structure of your story: all the pieces have to fit; each revelation has to build your story; and the beginning has to be reflected in what happens at the end.
Ah, that tricky beginning again. Take time to polish the beginning and make it shine. Think of that first page as a door for readers to enter your story. Make it the best door possible and be sure, by what you reveal in that first page, that you’ve invited your readers to stay with your story all the way to the end.