Ask a Book Coach: Where Do I Start My Story?
Welcome to my blog series,
Ask a Book Coach!
If you ever wanted to pick the brain of a book coach, this series is for you. In this series, I’m sharing the answers to the tough, fun, and sometimes random questions I get from my writers.
Today, I’m answering the question:
Hey Ashly! I have no idea where to start my story. I know what happens, but don’t know what that big opening moment should be. Help!
Well first, you are so the only one who deals with this…NOT (sorry, couldn’t help it, I’m a child of the ‘90s!). Actually, this is SUCH a common struggle! But don’t worry, I’ve got some actionable tips for you that will send you running to your keyboard (in a good way!).
So: Where do you start your story?!
One more note before we dig in to this: Don’t stress out too much about the perfect opening line/scene/chapter. At least not for your first draft. In all likelihood, your first scene/chapter will change a ton between first draft and final draft. One of my favorite authors, Susan Dennard, says, “You know what section of my book gets revised more than other part? THE BEGINNING. Why? Because story openers have to do more work than any other part of the novel (introducing the character, the world, the hook, the stakes, etc.).
Now for the actionable steps.
If you don’t know where to start your story, try these exercises:
Exercise 1: Consider using Lisa Cron’s Story Genius method and plot out the opening ticks of your story. In Chapter 8 of Story Genius, Cron suggest that in order to find your opening scene, you should “find the tick that catapults your protagonist into unavoidable action. You’ll know it when you get there, because you’ll feel a strong tug of forward momentum—a sense that your protagonist must act and must act now” (143). For the long explanation, I highly recommend you buy the book. But in short, you write out the moments leading up to your story and then pick the one where your protagonist is put between a rock and hard place and MUST take action of one kind or another.
Exercise 2: Look for the scene where everything changes (at least by the end of the scene). So think about coming home from shopping to find that letter, message, person waiting for you, etc…
Pro Tip: You will want to use your opening scene to set up stasis. We need to know what normal is like for the protagonist, why they need to change, what’s NOT working with their current situation. This varies by genre and writing style, but most writing gurus agree that you don’t want to spend too much time setting up stasis before you get to the big moment where the protagonist starts their new (often unexpected) journey.
Pro Tip #2: Keep in mind genre conventions when you are considering your opening scene/chapter . For example, the fantasy genre typically spends more time world-building and setting the story up than other genres.
Pro Tip #3: Keep the backstory manageable. I was working with one writer who had an excellent opening scene that happened right on the cusp of a huge conflict, but trying to fit in all the backstory and world building would have been impossible to do. So we backed up a couple of ticks and started the story a bit more slowly, layering in some good hints and building toward the big moment. It worked much better that way.
Exercise 3: Use your high school English teacher’s plot diagram. I know it can seem boring and a little stilted, but there is a reason that old plot diagram has stuck around: it narrows the story down to the basics. If you aren’t sure where to start, figure out what your inciting incident is and then give yourself a scene or two (or a chapter or two) to set up the story for that moment.
Exercise 4: Try writing three different opening scenes/chapters. Set them aside and give yourself space from them. When you revisit them, read them with an eye to which scene tugs your character (and your reader) into that forward momentum.
Exercise 5: Read and analyze opening scenes in your genre. Where does the story start and what does it do? In Girl on a Train for example, the main character’s morning train ride shows us here awful situation—out of work and struggling with alcohol. But it also introduces the people she watches from the train and gets that storyline moving right away.
Pro Tip: Ask yourself what your story is REALLY about. Don’t get bogged down in subplots and side conflicts. Get to the heart of the story—when does that story start?
Exercise 6: Create scene cards (another Story Genius exercise) for the “ticks” leading up to the opening scene. Which one steals the story and starts running with it?
Pro Tip: “The Realization” and “And So?” parts of the scene card are a good place to check for that forward tug we mentioned earlier.
Love this blog series?! Wish you could ask a book coach questions that are specific to YOUR work-in-progress? Working with a book coach is one of the most fun, most satisfying, most effective things you can do for your writing life. A current client of mine recently said this to me:
“I had this moment a month ago, when I thought, "I'm not really going to hire literally the first book coach I've ever heard of without at least getting quotes from other people, too, am I?" And then that's exactly what I did, because I just felt like the way you spoke on your blog and in your Insta lives was exactly the kind of voice I needed in my head while I'm writing. And that was a 100% excellent decision.”
But wait—just who am I? How can you trust me? After all, everyone’s an expert on the internet ;)
WELL. Let me take a big slurp of coffee…
Hi! I’m Ashly! I serve writers who want to write an extraordinary story and who are eager to grow as a writer and storyteller. I believe we aren’t born knowing how to write a good story, but have to learn it (just like Yo-Yo Ma wasn’t born knowing how to play the cello). I believe in the power of stories (especially stories in the fantasy genre) to bring hope and life into dark places. I’m an Author Accelerator certified book coach and I’ve been coaching writers in various genres for two years now. I’m honored to be part of the creation of so many beautiful stories (see my testimonials page if you want to read about some amazing writers!!).
Meanwhile…don’t forget to pin this post so you can reference it later!