Where and how to start your story:

There are a lot of hard and fast rules about how NOT to start your story. No dreams. No waking up. No first day of school. No descriptions of the weather. No battle scenes. And there are a multitude of good reasons for why these are less than ideal ways to start your story. But when it comes to good places to start, the answers seem a lot more vague.

So how should you start your story?

I like to call this the “oh shit” rule. And by that I mean start your story with an “oh shit” moment.

An “oh shit moment” is a moment where something goes wrong for your character. It can be big or small. It can be the inciting incident, or just a minor inconvenience like missing the bus. It’s up to you. But the point of the “oh shit moment” is to instantly draw your reader into a problem.

This establishes two things for your audience:

  1. It engages the reader right away. We are pulled into the scene and the character’s world almost instantly. Right away we are wondering what’s wrong and what the character is going to do about it.
  2. It is an imeditate opportunity for character development. Right away we get to see how the MC handles conflict. Do they blame someone else? Do they blame themselves? Do they feel guilt? Resentment? Do they throw a fit? Do they handle the problem responsibly? Do they ask for help?

One of my favorite examples, and one of the best, is Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series in which every book starts with the same line. “Okay, don’t panic.” It’s simple, but brilliant. Right away we are pulled into a problem. We can’t help but want to keep reading. We want to know what the problem is and how our delightfully moronic Becky is going to worm her way out of this one.

The benefit of starting with an “oh shit” moment is that right away conflict and stakes are established. The reader is given a reason to continue from almost the first line. It’s also a wonderful way to pull the audience into something with concrete objectives. Rather than watching the character go through a series of morning routines, or wander aimlesly through their world, we are given a clear, concrete premise that gives the audience purpose to keep reading.