The start of your novel or screenplay is perhaps the most important part of your story—especially if you want to capture the attention of an agent, production house, or publisher. Readers who don’t enjoy the start won’t stay the distance.
In the chapter ‘CRAFT AN OPENING SCENE THAT LURES READERS INTO CHAPTER TWO,’ taken from the book, Crafting Novels and Short Stories, Les Edgerton discusses four crucial elements that must be present at the start of every story:
(1) A successful introduction to a story-worthy problem.
(2) A hook.
(3) The rules of the story.
(4) The foreshadowing of the ending.
“The start can make or break a story. If readers lose interest a few pages in, they lose interest in the entire tale.”
Know where to start. Too early and you might bore your reader; too late and there might not be enough context to deepen the characters. Therefore, begin at the right time by introducing the story problem while incorporating subtext for context.
A story-worthy problem
In The Matrix, the audience is hurled right into the conflict between the agents and the rebels from the get-go. The problem, which becomes more defined as the story progresses, is to stay one step ahead of the agents who seek the annihilation of an awakening humanity. No time for boredom here.
This opening acts as a powerful hook too. We need to know why the agents are hunting these people, and how is it that both parties seem to possess extraordinary physical abilities?
The start of your story must also establish genre and style: the tone, voice, pace. In a novel, establish the narrative method—first person present or past tense, third-person omniscient or limited, and the like, and stick to it. There are exceptions to this, but I wouldn’t recommend that you mingle styles when starting out. Imagine mixing the expansive, ponderous pace of Lord of the Rings with a first person narration belonging to Bilbo Baggins or any of the other characters?
Foreshadow the ending from the start
Edgerton advises students that they should reference the start of their tale for their answer. This is good advice—the start of a story contains the genetic code for the entire narrative organism.
In The Nostalgia of Time Travel Benjamin Vlahos spends his time drinking coffee and eating waffles while trying to come up with the solution to an impossibly difficult equation. Thirty years have got him nowhere, but the fact that he refuses to give up, hints at the outcome of the threat posed by the approaching category-five cyclone.
Exercise: Review any story you have written. Does the first chapter or the first ten pages embody the four principles mentioned above? If not, think of ways to incorporate them.
The story start should introduce the story-worthy problem, a hook, the stylistic rules of the narrative, and foreshadow the ending.