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A few weeks ago my entire family had COVID and I ended up spending a lot of time on the sofa watching movies. I definitely would have liked to spend my time a little differently, but I still ended up learning a lot when I watched those movies with a critical eye. Although I write novels and I write about writing novels, you can still learn a lot from a good film, especially about beginning a story. In this post, we’ll go over what is a good way to start a story even if you have the most incredible and unbelievable plot events.
Hooking your readers is just the first part of beginning a story
You probably know that your first lines should hook your reader and make them interested in the story, but the first couple of scenes have other important goals as well. So what is a great way to start a story that will keep your readers believing in your characters all the way through?
Readers generally take as a fact what you tell them about your characters and their world at the beginning of the story, so giving them the right facts will help them accept everything else later on. If you’ve ever read a book that made you think “wow, this writer is just making this all up” you’ve probably been reading a story that has been set up poorly. I bet you don’t want that to happen to you.
Continue reading to find out what you need to keep in mind when starting a story and we’ll also talk about how you can fix your beginning if you need to make changes.
Show us what your character is really like when you start a story
No matter what happens during the story, our first impression of your character matters the most. That’s what “save the cat” in the title of Save the Cat! means – you have to show your character doing something good or worthy in the beginning of your story. That way we will believe they are capable of good no matter what kinds of illegal and immoral shenanigans they get up to. Of course, it also works the other way round, so remember to include a bad deed if your character ends up being not so good.
I recently re-watched Mrs Doubtfire and that movie really has an effective first scene. We see Daniel, played by Robin Williams, at work doing a voiceover for a children’s cartoon. However, he starts to improvise during a scene where one of the cartoon characters is smoking a cigar because he thinks it’s immoral to show smoking to children without any critique. After being told he can’t do that he walks out on his job.
What does that simple act teach us? I think it becomes very obvious that Daniel cares about children. He’s also a man of principle because clearly he isn’t going to do something he thinks is against his morals, even if it costs him his job. This is why we’re only rooting for him even when he throws that ridiculous birthday party for his son. We don’t think he’s being irresponsible, really, we just think he really loves his son and wants him to have a fantastic time.
Make us believe in your story
Anything unbelievable can be believable in your story if you just set it up right. That’s why we keep reading fantasy books and watching science fiction films – they’ve make us believe in them. Any story can be believable and logical if you make it so, and it’s up to you to inject that logic into your story.
Sometimes you might have to do all that backwards. Let’s say you want to write about a young girl who becomes a master burglar, and you go ahead and write your first draft.
When you read your first draft, you start to wonder if your readers would really believe a girl from a peaceful small town could truly become a successful criminal. You go back to your first scenes and make sure to mention she got locked into her house as a child by her evil babysitter and had to learn to lockpick to break free. Then she got revenge by breaking into the babysitter’s house and stealing a valuable brooch she had inherited from her grandmother.
You don’t have to – and actually shouldn’t – reveal your whole backstory in the beginning of your novel just to make it believable. But there needs to be some kind of an indicator, a hint or a mention of what has happened. You need to plant the seeds early on.
Let’s go back to Mrs Doubtfire. Why do we believe that a) Daniel would go through the trouble of pretending to be his children’s nanny, and b) that he would be successful in his double role? We already know that he cares about his children and that their well-being is the most important thing even if his means to ensure it might be questionable. We don’t doubt his motives.
We might already know that Robin Williams was able to play any role he wanted to and we would have believed him. That man had a voice for everything. But why do we believe Daniel could pretend to be an elderly British woman when he was everything but? Because we already saw him at his work, and he was great. We already think “yes, if anyone can do that, it’s him”. It’s that simple.
Make us care as soon as you’re beginning a story
It’s one thing to have your readers believe your story, but ideally, they should care, too. You can’t write an absolute bastard who doesn’t ever think about anyone else and then reveal on page 250 that he really cares about his little sister. Why? Because we’re most likely not going to give a damn about this character and we’re probably not going to like him. All the shitty people that we’re supposed to care about have something in them that makes us care, and we need to be shown that early on.
Do you know why so many disaster movies follow a single family (or a single character who has a family) instead of just showing what happens on a global scale? Because it’s difficult to care about the entire population of our planet. Sure, we’d probably have some anxiety about our fate, but we don’t care as much as when we’re showing what is happening to people who are just like us.
If you’ve written your story and you’re not sure if your readers are going to care about your main character, make them feel something positive for the character as soon as possible when you start your story. This could be anything from empathy when we see the character falsely accused of something we know they didn’t do or respect when we see them stand up for someone who’s being bullied. It doesn’t even have to be anything big – a simple gesture can be enough. Readers will notice.
Exercises for beginning a story the right way
Pick a movie you’ve already seen or a book you’ve already read. If there is a surprise twist, even better.
Go back to the first scenes (or the first episode if you’re watching a full series) and make note of how they introduce the characters. Are there things you didn’t realise were relevant the first time around? How do they show what the most important aspects of the characters are? How do they set up the story to make it believable?
Make a note of other things, too, that you like about the beginning of the story that you think could be useful for your writing. What other ways to begin a story are there? Is there something that doesn’t work that you should avoid?
When you’re ready to start writing your own story, make yourself a list of what you want your readers to believe about your characters and your story world. After you’ve written your first draft, look at your first two or three scenes and see if the proof of everything on your list can be found in those scenes. If not, make changes. You could even show the 20 or so pages to someone and ask them to tell you what kind of a person your main character is and see if they were right at all.
Are there other aspects of storytelling that you struggle with? Let me know and I’ll try to write a post about it in the future! If you’re just about to start your writing journey, do check out my comprehensive ebook and workbook How to Write a Novel.
Start writing a book in less than a week
So now you know how to start to tell a story the right way, but you might still be unsure of how to start writing a novel. Maybe you’ve got a few cool ideas but you’re kind of overwhelmed by the whole process of writing an entire book, and I can’t blame you. Fortunately for you, I know exactly how to get started, and I show you everything you need to know in this free email course.