“If I can get that first paragraph right,” Stephen King once told The Atlantic, “I’ll know I can do the book.”
Starting a story—or novel—can feel pretty intimidating. And to be sure, a compelling start can do more than encourage your eventual reader to keep turning pages; a strong start can keep you writing those pages. Perhaps that’s why I relate so deeply to this quote from Stephen King. When I start a story or a novel, I absolutely obsess over the beginning, as much for the reader’s sake as my own.
So, how can you start your story or novel with its best foot forward? Everyone’s writing process is different, but there’s a handful of general rules that I still think about every single time I sit down to start a new story:
1. Remember that plot comes from character.
Your plot isn’t something that you impose upon your character, nor is it something that you work out ahead of time and then place your character within. Plot is a function of character. This is why, far more often than not, I consciously keep myself from knowing a story’s ending before I start writing. Instead, discover your story, and discover it via character.
Ask yourself, with each new obstacle or development, “What would my character do? How would my character react to this?” At least with the first draft, let your character write the ending.
2. Get your fighters fighting.
This is an old adage of writing, but it’s one that many young writers don’t embrace. Very often, I’ll read a student’s story and find that the first few pages are a kind of preamble to the actual story. Especially if you’re relatively new to writing, don’t overcomplicate things: In those first few pages, establish your main character and main antagonist, and establish what’s at stake.
Think of that first section as your pitch to the reader. You want them to keep turning pages, and the likelihood that they’ll keep reading will vastly increase if you set up your story clearly and straightforwardly.
3. What’s the story as the character sees it?
I had a professor in graduate school—the wonderful Michelle Herman at Ohio State University—who first tuned me into this question, and I think it’s as a good piece of writing advice as anything I’ve ever heard. Your characters are intelligent, reflective people. They’re aware that they’re experiencing incredible circumstances or, at least, difficult circumstances. So, what does your character make of all that?
Fleshing out the answer to this question will add new depth to your character and will help you understand that character all the better. And remember: Plot comes from character, so if you know what your character makes of their circumstances, you’ll be able to make an even more informed decision about how that character would react to those circumstances.
4. Fiction loves a triangle.
Stories are all about conflict, and conflict often comes in the shape of a triangle. I’m not necessarily talking about romantic triangles, but reread some of your favorite stories and I bet you’ll find three characters—rather than two—striving for the same thing. With three central characters in the mix, you may find your story growing by leaps and bounds (in a good way).
After all, if you’re doing the other work that you should be doing—if you’re deriving plot from character, if you’re immediately engaging your characters in conflict with one another, and if you’re considering the characters’ own perspectives of the dilemma they’re in—suddenly you’ll have a story that feels very fleshed out, very compelling, and full of momentum.
Raymond Fleischmann’s debut novel How Quickly She Disappears is forthcoming from Penguin Random House this January. He’s published short fiction in the Iowa Review, Cimarron Review, the Pinch, and the Los Angeles Review, among many others, and was a Hugo Fellow in 2013–2014. He’ll be reading from How Quickly She Disappears at Hugo House on Tuesday, January 14, at 7 pm, and on January 13 he’ll teach a one-day fiction course titled Close Encounters of the Third-Person Kind.