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Three Questions: How to Begin a Story

How do you begin a story?

I begin every story different but I try to start as close to the action as possible. A common rule of thumb for writing fiction is to start in media res, which is Latin for "in the middle of things," and I'm a big believer in this method. You want to introduce your protagonist and inject tension into the story as soon as possible - preferably the first sentence. In my mystery novel, the story begins with the protagonist, Gavin, getting a phone call from the woman who he has loved unrequited for most of his life, and with whom he hasn't spoken to in years. In a lecture I attended, writer David Mura said that "Every story is about a lie and the story ends when the lie is revealed." I think that if you can identify the "lie" or mystery in your story, introduce it right away.

What do you need to do before you start a story?

Depending on the story, usually a fair amount of research. In a story I recently wrote for an upcoming Rogue Owl Press sci-fi anthology, I had to do research on a number of topics, from the logistics and ethics of generation ships to the value of various minerals and how colonization of a new planet would work. Before I start working on a story, I typically take out a notebook and jot down the names and important details of the key characters. I think the most interesting and believable stories are ones that focus on the conflict between characters so I think deeply about the characters, what they want, and look for the areas where those desires might come into conflict. Being a Dungeons & Dragons nerd, I also find it helpful to think about where each character would land on an alignment chart. I also jot down anything that the various characters are hiding from each other and, if I know ahead of time what they are, I jot down "events" in the story. These are typically the outside forces that add tension and threaten the desires of the characters. Once I have these bare bones notes, typically a page or less for a short story, I jump into writing the story.

What are common mistakes made in story beginnings?

There are a lot of traps for writers. For new writers especially, there is the temptation to INFODUMP all over the reader. This happens when the author knows so much information about the story and isn't experienced enough to know what info to include and when to relay it that they end up providing pages and pages of backstory up front, long before the poor reader has even had a chance to get hooked into the story.

Another common mistake is the "clearing of the throat" pitfall. This often happens when a writer is searching around for the right voice for the character and ends up writing a lot of unnecessary fluff before finally getting to where the story should actually begin.

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