Writing Tips: How to Start a Story (The Ordinary World – Part 1)

WritingHintsPhotoMany aspiring writers have great ideas bubbling up from their fertile imaginations, but when they sit down to write they often have no idea where to begin.

The answer? Begin in the protagonist’s ordinary world, that is, in the world of his or her normal circumstances. How do we do that? Read on.

This ordinary-world beginning works well in many types of story structures, but it is especially effective in what is often called “The Hero’s Journey,” which is the story path that I have often followed.

This is step #1 in the journey – the hero’s (protagonist’s) ordinary world.

Elements of the ordinary-world opening:

  1. Grab the reader’s attention with a hook beginning
  2. Raise questions that the reader wants answered
  3. Provide a goal for the protagonist
  4. Show the protagonist’s qualities and flaws
  5. Set the physical scene with only essential details
  6. Begin building a bridge to the back story
  7. Establish a feeling that a crisis of some sort is coming
  8. Complete the journey toward the initial goal by showing success or failure

As a way to explain each of these elements, I am including the beginning of my book Reapers:

The death alarm sounded, that phantom punch in the gut I always dreaded. I touched the metallic gateway valve embedded in my chest at the top of my sternum—warm but not yet hot. The alarm was real. Someone in my territory would die tonight, and I had to find the poor soul. Death didn’t care about the late hour. Reapers like me always stayed on call.

I rose from my moth-eaten reading chair, blew out the hanging lantern’s flame, and stalked across my one-room apartment to the window, guided by light from outside. The internal alarm grew stronger. Prickly vibrations raced along my cloak from the baggy sleeves to the top of the hood, tickling the two-day stubble across my cheeks and chin. Time was growing short—probably less than an hour left.

I shoved open the window sash and leaned into the darkness of the urban alley. With electricity cut-off hour long past for residents, only streetlamps glowed from a neighborhood road to the left. A tall woman in a black trench coat stood at the corner holding an umbrella over her head and a suitcase at her side, as if she were waiting for a ride, maybe a taxi.

I leaned farther out to get a better look. It hadn’t rained in three days, and the skies were clear—a dry night in Chicago and too warm for a trench coat. No cabbie would pick up this woman even if he could see her.

A slight glow around her eyes confirmed her status. She was a ghost, probably level two, far too opaque to be newly dead and glowing too much to have wandered for more than a couple of weeks. If not for the death alarm, I could take the time to collect her. For now she would have to keep wandering. I had to use all my senses to figure out who was about to die.

Note how the first sentence indicates that this is the protagonist’s ordinary world. The words “that” and “always” show that this alarm was a frequent occurrence. The protagonist is accustomed to this alarm, though it is unpleasant. After that beginning, the opening paints a picture of the world using methods that I will explain in future posts.

For now, let’s see how this opening fulfills some of the above elements.

1. Grab the reader’s attention with a hook beginning: “The death alarm sounded, that phantom punch in the gut I always dreaded.” The concept of a death alarm grabs attention by raising an element of mystery and prompting the reader’s first questions. “What is a death alarm, and why does this character get them?”

And that leads us to the second element.

2. Raise questions that the reader wants answered: Here are more potential questions that this beginning raises. “Why does the protagonist have a valve embedded in his chest? Who is going to die? What is a Reaper? Why is he wearing a cloak? Why is there an electricity cut-off hour? Why is the ghost at the street? What is a level-two ghost? Are there other levels?” And I’m sure you can come up with other questions.

These questions add to the mystery of the opening scene, which is an ideal way to hold the reader’s attention. As long as we feed the reader answers to some questions while keeping some unanswered, the reader will continue turning the pages to satisfy the thirst for more.

Many writers are tempted to begin with intense action, such as a physical battle, a car chase, or a natural disaster. Although this method can be viable, readers might feel lost and disconnected because they don’t yet know anything about the characters or what is at stake. There is no emotional attachment that allows the reader to feel the danger and sympathize with potential losses. Such an attachment is the crucial bond between the reader and the story.

I believe in delaying intense action for at least a few paragraphs or pages until the reader has a chance to connect. First show some of the protagonist’s character qualities. Allow the reader to understand what is at stake so that any intense action has purpose and a potential sense of loss if the character suffers a defeat.

And that leads us to element #3, which I will cover in next Monday’s post.

Please comment with any questions or suggestions.

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31 replies

  1. I love this! Although I am no writer (I think it’d be fun tho!) I found this very informative and helpful and I will be passing it on to friends of mine who are aspiring writers 🙂

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  2. Question: You began Starlighter with a battle/combat scene. Did that work because it was a slowly beginning battle, giving him time to think and reveal who he is, what’s going on, and what’s at stake?

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  3. Starting the first Chapter can be ver nerve-racking. Especially, for me since this is my first time writing in a very long time. This really helps.

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  4. Question: What if your character starts out with a very typical everyday lifestyle (i.e. going to school, work, playing in the yard)? How do you still raise questions and grab the reader’s attention?

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    • Evangeline, you need to have a crisis in mind that will alter that ordinary world. You foreshadow that crisis within the ordinary activities, and the foreshadowing makes the ordinary world interesting. The foreshadowing also brings out character qualities in the protagonist. I will cover that aspect with examples in a future post when I cover item #7: Establish a feeling that a crisis of some sort is coming.

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      • In dealing with foreshadowing, does it have to be something the character notices/feels, or could it be something like, “What he didn’t see was the shadowy figure watching from the alley, etc.”?

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        • Since I always promote using “Intimate Point of View” (coming in a future post), I would not use “What he didn’t see …” because I would not report any visual my focal character can’t see. I would write the character noticing that some things aren’t going the way they normally would, sort of like noticing a boiling thunderstorm on the horizon (in a figurative sense). When I get to element #7, I will show exactly what I mean.

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  5. Good post, Mr. Davis. ^ ^ Can’t wait to read more. Your techniques have helped me so much in my writing. It’s going to be really cool to see them on a blog.

    Stori Tori’s Blog

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  6. What about prologues/beginning snippets that take place in a secondary character’s POV? Is it okay to start with a scene that doesn’t include your protagonist?

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    • Tracey, yes you can start a scene that doesn’t include the protagonist, but it’s best to follow the formula with whatever character you choose. For example, check out the beginning of Precisely Terminated, by Amanda L. Davis:


      How nice it must be to sleep so peacefully when doom awaited at dawn. Letting out a sigh, Faye pulled a threadbare blanket from a top bunk and surveyed the many beds and sleeping bodies lined up in the cramped room. How little they all knew, these poor, ignorant laborers. Perhaps they would die unaware of the tragedy about to befall them.

      As she folded the blanket and laid it back on the bed, tears welled in her eyes. Why did it have to happen this way? She was only a nursemaid, one slave in the midst of thousands. Why should she die because of one man’s actions? It simply wasn’t fair. No, it was cruel, inhumane, tragic . . . evil.

      She slowly clenched a fist. Fair or unfair, the time had come. The plan had to proceed.


      Faye is a secondary character. The protagonist, Monica, is just a young child at this time, so the entire first chapter acts as a prologue for Monica’s story. Still, Amanda wrote the opening in the ordinary world of the secondary character, foreshadowing an impending crisis, and followed with a crisis that destroyed that ordinary world, just as you would do for a protagonist. It’s the same formula.

      This accomplished two things: It provided back story in an interesting way (no information dumping), and avoided the temptation that many readers have to skip prologues, especially long ones. Amanda chose to begin the story further back than Monica’s grand entrance in order to provide a stunning backdrop without halting the protagonist’s story.

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  7. Wow. This is great. I’m really exited to put these methods into practice. I’m always looking for ways to improve my writing, so this blog will be perfect for me.

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  8. My mom actually alerted me to your blog because she knows I have a story brewing in my head. The timing of all of this is not coincidental. I look forward to seeing what happens under some guidance and to see if this is really a story that God would have me tell. Even reading the comments is helping me. I never expected this to be a road I might travel this year! Thanks for letting my tag along.

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  9. I know that this is off topic but will you be making a following series to children of the Bard. Also when will you be coming to Orlando Florida again because I missed you by a day

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    • I’m sorry for taking so long to reply. Your message was captured by the spam filter. I have no plans to add a series after Children of the Bard. That story world is finished.

      I plan to return to the Orlando area at the end of February for a writers conference. I have no public events on my schedule.

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  10. I fell for Phoenix when you showed it at that writing class, Bryan, and when I read it later I loved him more. That intro is nigh perfect and gave me a chill.

    Funny aside, I didn’t notice until I read this yesterday (hey, I was on my phone and wasn’t going to type a comment on that tiny screen) how much Phoenix uses death imagery to describe things. It’s saturated him, death has.

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  11. A ton of tips in the 2100+ stage hero’s journey

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Trackbacks

  1. How to Start a Story: The Ordinary World – Part 2: How to Motivate a Hero | The Author's Chair
  2. Writing Tips: 4 Essential Elements for Setting the First Scene | The Author's Chair
  3. Writing Tips: Revealing the Secrets of the Past | The Author's Chair
  4. Writing Tips – The Coming Crisis | The Author's Chair
  5. Writing Tips – The Hero’s First Goal, Success or Failure? | The Author's Chair
  6. Story Development – Wanted, Superhero to Save the World Part 1 | The Author's Chair
  7. Writing Tips: 4 Essential Elements for Setting the First Scene |
  8. Writing Tips: Revealing the Secrets of the Past |
  9. Writing Tips – The Coming Crisis |
  10. Writing Tips – The Hero’s First Goal, Success or Failure? |
  11. Story Development – Wanted, Superhero to Save the World Part 1 |
  12. Book Length Issues – Part 1

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