My friends, this post is part of a series about story structure. You can catch the overview of story structure and separate posts about the hero and goal in your story by clicking those links. They’ll help you out if you haven’t read them already.
We’re going to talk about the beginning of your story. The beginning of a story is important, because your job is to convince a group of people that your story is worth listening to. But you can manage it.
There are some common mistakes that people make in the beginning of their stories. They tend to be on opposite ends of the same scale – either the jump in without enough information or front loading so much information that your audience is lost before you get started.
Mistakes happen when it isn’t clear what the beginning of a story needs.
Since you’ve done the work of figuring out who your hero is and what their goal will be in this story, then you’ll see that they help you understand what the beginning of your story needs. It’s usually a balance between establishing the rules of the world, showing that this story matters for the audience, and dropping a couple hints of great things to come.
Simply put: you need to hook your audience and show them around your little world.
The rules you’re establishing in the beginning of the story are the workings of the hero’s ordinary world. Ordinary doesn’t mean ordinary for you and your audience, it means ordinary for the hero. Harry Potter’s ordinary is sleeping under the stairs and making coffee in over-sized trousers. Don Corleone’s ordinary is fielding requests to murder young local thugs on the day of his daughter’s wedding. The Lord of the Rings, normal seems to involve running around without shoes on and living in hills. Anything goes for the context of your story.
Now, let’s say you aren’t writing a screenplay, but you have to give a presentation about zebra fish larvae. The normal you establish for your audience could be how they live, what they need to survive, and the challenges they face.
Or maybe you are talking about a chronic illness like Crohn’s disease. Then normal is describing what life is like for someone who suffers from this disease. What are their daily challenges? What does their everyday look like and how is that different from what the world might expect?
You might already sense it, but in all of this you’re also going to work on hooking your audience.
Don’t worry about jumping in with the hook right away. Remember that the beginning of a story is more than just the first line or the first scene. In Harry Potter, the beginning goes on until he leaves the house on the rock with Hagrid. In the Lord of the Rings, it goes on until Frodo decides to go on a new adventure. With story, you have some time to draw your audience in.
So how do you hook them? You introduce a problem. That could be a character flaw that looks like it will doom the hero. It could be a situation from the outside. You introduce an element of the unknown in terms of what will happen next.
As you do this, you can draw on universal experiences that your audience will be familiar with. With Harry Potter, it’s the lack of love and acceptance that make it easy for him to leave his aunt and uncle. The desire to fit in is something everyone can identify with.
Michael Corleone is ultimately driven by love for his family to become part of the family business with a single dramatic and irrevocable act. The audience understands how much he tries to resist the family business and how much the family depends on him to do things differently. This internal conflict and a desire to find out what happens act as a hook. We sit through the film wondering what will happen next.
How does this translate to less dramatic stories? We can look for the universal in almost every story. A zebra fish larva needs to eat to survive and that Crohn’s patient wants to participate in life events without being afraid their body will betray them. These are shared experiences every audience can relate to.
When you are shaping your story, look particularly for the things we all share. They are there, just waiting for you to uncover them.
The next thing you’ll do is drop a couple hints of what’s to come. These don’t have to be along the lines of cliff hanger or secret twist at the end films like The Sixth Sense or Gone Girl. What we do want to do is show the audience that the thing our hero will be doing is worth paying attention to.
Harry Potter is off to learn what wizards do. In the first movie, that’s enough to keep you watching. Oh yes, and that little thing about being the one who lived. What did he survive, exactly?
How are you going to do this in your non-fiction, real life, or research related story? Aside from calling on shared experiences, you can also talk about why your material matters. Why does it matter to the people in the room? Or to a particular body of thought? Or maybe even to humanity? This may be one of the most important things you share with them.
So, there you have it – how to work your way into a story.
Start with the familiar or filling in a backstory your audience needs. Move on to establish what the ordinary world is for your hero and along the way, get their audience so they hold on for the rest of the ride!
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