The Elements of a Good Beginning
How we begin matters. The beginning of the story needs to establish two essential things. Firstly, we must introduce our protagonist/s in terms of the life they experience as normal (I’ll explain that in a minute). Secondly, we must introduce an event that upsets and overturns that sense of normal; presenting the character/s with a problem that it will take the rest of the story to resolve.
Establishing normal life
Give your audience a snapshot of your character’s normal life – the life they lead every day – before the story starts. It’s showing us Luke Skywalker daydreaming about joining the Academy while doing his chores before the droids arrive; it’s showing us Neo in his day-to-day job while hacking in his spare time prior to meeting Trinity; it’s seeing Will Turner’s skill at sword-smithing being overlooked while he can’t bring himself to acknowledge his feelings for Elizabeth Swann. When you introduce your character and their typical experience of life, do so as quickly as possible. Don’t waste words.
This doesn’t exclude setup, world-building, and backstory. In the movies referred to above, there are scenes of backstory and setup that appear prior to the key moments above. Just don’t make the mistake of spending unnecessary time on them (emphasis on unnecessary) or forgetting to reveal what the characters’ normal life looks like. Give the backstory time, by all means, but don’t waste time on it. Make sure it is as economical in its presentation as possible so that you can get to the main event – introducing the protagonist/s and introducing the event that presents the protagonist/s with a problem.
Presenting the problem
It is the presentation of the problem that provides your audience with the most interest. This is the place where the story actually begins and where the story begins to grab attention.
The day-to-day, normal existence of our characters – the uninterrupted “nine to five” routine by which they live – is of little interest. We need to see it, but only briefly, so that we can recognize when the unusual events, that form the story overall, begin.
The event which starts the story (for each significant character) must be one that derails the familiar (if not necessarily comfortable) routine in which the characters find themselves when the story starts. Luke must be given responsibility for some droids his uncle purchased that are, unbeknownst to him, wanted by the Empire. Neo must receive a cryptic message on his computer about following the white rabbit. Will Turner must learn Elizabeth Swann has been kidnapped by pirates.
Note that these “inciting incidents” – these events that push the characters out of their routine lives, tend to be present for MOST of the characters in the story.
- Darth Vader loses some droids that may be hiding plans to the Death Star.
- Princess Leia is arrested by the Emperor’s chief henchman.
- Luke’s new R2 droid runs away from the farm.
- Han Solo and Chewbakka discover a bounty has been placed on their heads by a local gangster and need to find work (fast) to pay it off.
- Obi Wan Kenobi receives a message from a princess begging for his aid.
Despite this, there is usually one character – a character who stands in for the audience, and with whom the audience is expected to identify – for whom the inciting incident carries extra weight. Their story is the one we will follow to its conclusion, and it is typically the inciting incident for this character that is most important (and therefore, should be presented as quickly as possible).
The story hasn’t truly begun until we see the effect or impact of the problem (and its consequences) upon our protagonist/s.
- NARRATOR: [backstory] Vega Station, like most of earth’s deep-space mining outposts, is isolated and rarely visited, except by the great ships that haul the ore and supplies between the asteroid field in which it is situated and earth’s major industrial concerns. On the command and control deck of the station, Captain Marcos is compiling his end of day report.
- MARCOS: [Character introduction – establishing “normal” life] Captain’s Log, Authorisation Code GH2763a, Captain Antonin Marcos speaking. It’s been another slow day. The diggers are bringing up ore at capacity and we’re well on our way to meeting this month’s target. Welby is griping about not having found another source of Uranium yet. He always gets antsy when the current veins start to run dry. And with some of the veins already depleted I estimate we’ll probably only get another three months out of our current dig site before we have to locate more. I’m not worried though. We’ve hardly begun exploiting this asteroid field and there’s bound to be plenty more ore to dig out when the current mine plays out. I just need to ride this out for another year or two and I’ll be able to retire comfortably with…
- SOUND: BLARING PROXIMITY ALARM – DUCK UNDER AND FINISH.
- MARCOS: What now?
- FREIGHTER CAPTAIN: (FILTERED TO SOUND LIKE RADIO) This is Captain Velerion of the Freighter Tiberius calling Vega Station. We have an on-board emergency. Do you copy?
- MARCOS: (TO SELF) Aw hell!
- MARCOS: Captain Valerion, this is Captain Marcos of Vega Station. You don’t appear to be on any of our logged flight plans. What is the nature of your emergency?
- FREIGHTER CAPTAIN: (FILTERED TO SOUND LIKE STATIC) We are a freighter out of Cardosia 6, looking for permission to dock and make repairs.
- MARCOS: Cardosia? Isn’t that planet up to its armpits in civil war?
- FREIGHTER CAPTAIN: (FILTERED TO SOUND LIKE STATIC) [Inciting incident – introducing the problem] It was. The Centrovian rebels, with support from the Outer Galactic Alliance, took the capital two days ago. Under statute 47 of the Trans-Galactic Treaty we request political asylum upon your station for Princess Tilde Irmingarde, formerly of Cardosia 6, the only surviving member of the Cardosian royal family.
- MARCOS: (TO SELF) Oh no. No, no, no! This is a headache I just don’t need…
Again, and just to emphasise, you can take your time with the start of a story. You can begin with an action scene in media res (just like a Bond film) if you wish, or spend time acquainting your audience with the world in which your story is situated. But the story itself doesn’t begin until the protagonist/s have been introduced and the problem that starts them on their journey has been encountered. Until these two things happen, all is backstory and prologue. And that is fine. But the audience will not invest in the story until the story itself begins. The more prologue and backstory you provide before the story itself starts, the greater the chance that you will lose the attention of your audience (especially in these days of increasingly short attention spans).
But, as usual, these guidelines are just that. If you have a good reason for delaying the introduction of your characters and their dilemma, then do so. As a general rule, however, to start a story well…
- Introduce your characters and their typical routine.
- Introduce an event that forces them out of that routine and kicks off the story.
- Do this as quickly as possible.
What techniques do you employ to begin your drama? Tell us your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.
This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.