Let’s talk beginnings, young padawan.
There are some out there in Storyteller Land that will say the ending is the most important part. But I disagree. I think the beginning of a story is more critical.
Because I say so 😁
But really, I have reasons. Good reasons. Are you ready for them? Of course you are, because you’re still reading! Are you? Please say you are…
#1: The Hook
Any story worth their salt has a killer hook. I’m not talking about something of average excitement. I’m talking about actual sharp emotion. Gripping, poignant, all-encompassing. Something that is impossible to ignore or turn away from.
Now, because I can’t guarantee you’ve read the same books I have, (or maybe you have…) I’ll be using movies as my source for great examples. It’s easier than using Ice Planet Barbarians by Ruby Dixon because I can’t guarantee you’ve read that. But movies are great because you can sit down and pull up YouTube and watch specific scenes. Or better yet, go out and watch the entire thing!
Now, Fight Club. Epic movie. First scene, we’re staring down the sights of a gun. The camera slowly backs up. Details emerge. The gun is in a dude’s mouth and we hear the dialogue. “People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden.”
Bam. Instant intrigue. You want to know everything. Everyone. You want to know who the hell is this Durden bloke. You want to know why the dude has a gun in his mouth. You need to know. It’s painful to be left in the dark. That’s a killer hook.
What about the Matrix? Trinity fighting in impossible ways, fleeing for her life from impossible pursuers.
Star Wars: A New Hope. The huge ass spaceship hurtling through space. The epic music.
The beginning of your story should have a hook. I’m not talking within the first few chapters. I’m talking about within the first few pages. Some are even of the belief it should be the first line. But that depends on when you choose to start your book. We can talk about that later. The hook ISN’T the inciting incident. Now, some say you can forgo the hook for a stellar inciting incident. But I don’t believe that. The hook is story critical.
It should be loud, proud, and in your face. Something no one can turn away from.
#2: Introducing Your Hero/Heroine
The second reason why beginnings are the most important part of your story: Character. I’m a big fan of character. Probably because I’m best at crafting character. Total truth. But without character, what would a story be? Nothing. It would be a formless, shapeless blob of meaningless words. Story is character. It’s also emotion, but for this little post, story is character, and you feel your emotions THROUGH your character, so there.
The beginning is critical to help your character take shape. Character isn’t something that flops fully formed on a page. Character is crafted over paragraphs and pages. They’re forged from interaction, narration, and exposition. The most meaningful stories are those that take character and make the readers believe in them. That’s only really possible if you begin at the <drumroll> beginning. This is relevant for all character arcs, or event/milieu driven stories. Because they all have characters that we need to identify with.
Once you have a solid foundation for the character is when you can finally see how the story will shape them, change them, and alter them irrevocably. But this is only possible when the character is set up correctly in the beginning.
Think about all the greatest characters.
Luke Skywalker. He starts out as this adorable little country lad with his friends and town. He turns into a total badass. All that was possible because his character was set up correctly IN THE BEGINNING. See how I shouted that? Beginning is critical to setting up the character’s readers (or watchers) will love so dearly.
Tyler Durden. That poor bloke spends the entire movie in a sort of crisis that was set up so beautifully in the beginning. And the twist, oh boy!
#3: Steaks. Juicy, tender, succulent, covered in mushrooms.
Uh, no. Stakes. The wooden kind, you know, a vampire’s worst enemy.
No, the other other stakes. As in, poker, what’s on the line.
The beginning is the only place to set up the stakes for your story. Because once you proceed past the First Plot Point, readers have to have a firm grasp on what exactly is at stake in your story. Without this key component, the reader can get more lost than a drop of fresh water in the ocean.
Probably one of the most critical elements in a story for keeping a reader engaged is stakes. What does the hero have to lose? What’s the worst-case scenario? The more the hero (and others) have at stake as they move through the story world, the more tension and suspense the story will have.
Readers need an excuse to continue. Sure, you grabbed them with a great hook. Yeah, you have a fully formed and entrancing character. But how long will they stick around with just those two? Usually not long enough.
Now, I’ll give it to you that some stories can succeed with just amazing characters. But I’ll fight anyone who says that story will last the ages and be counted among the greats. Because without stakes (or steaks, a good steak is great too) a story has little to go on.
This is as easy and as hard as it sounds. Because stakes can be established with a few lines of dialogue, an event, or even an entire chapter of exposition. What really matters is that it’s present, and it’s early.
But that’s why the beginning is the most important part of the story, because it set the stage for everything that comes later.
This one is a little more obscure, because not a lot of authors really grasp foreshadowing. They forget the subtle little lanterns that can hang in a story and take it to the next level. But they don’t realize that the best twists, the ones that are really epic, are the ones that are hinted at from the beginning.
My favorite sort of tidbit is the rule of three. The first is real subtle like, it’s small, seemingly nothing hidden within something else. Most everyone would miss it, or call it something else. The second is more visible. Those readers who are really in tune might see it and think something is up. The third is for those of us who need it spelled out. A slap in the face. A direct and not so hidden announcement.
That’s why it’s so important to set up the story twists in the beginning (which requires knowing how it will end). By setting the stage correctly, the ending and any twists will shine brightly. Because a good twist doesn’t just pop out of nowhere! A good twist is hinted at in the very beginning and slowly built upon.
The best thing about foreshadowing correctly in the beginning is how it plays upon the other items in our list. Stakes, built upon foreshadowing. Because a good story, like a good onion or ogre, should have lots of layers. They’re all dependent on each other to mold the story into exactly what it needs to be.
But foreshadowing isn’t just for the big twists. Foreshadowing can be used as hints to the story questions that will eventually be posed to the reader. They’re used to hint at the conflict, plot points, and character development. This is why the beginning is critical, because it allows the space and time necessary to set up good foreshadowing.
#5: Proper Previous Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance
Okay. Okay. So maybe that’s not exactly the right thing to call it. But I love me some alliteration. The last reason why beginnings are so critical is because they set up the entire rest of the novel. The First Plot Point is the end of the beginning, and as a writer you have until that point to prepare your story to launch readers into the stratosphere of emotion and conflict.
This is where the beginning’s purpose, its goal, really comes to fruition. Everything that’s happened in the beginning; the killer hook, amazing character development, gripping stakes, and brilliant foreshadowing set the stage for the First Plot Point.
This is where all your hard work, sweat, and tears make the story take off. Because if you’ve done everything right, the First Plot Point will smack the reader right in the feels. They’ll have all the emotion necessary to become fully invested in the story. By taking the time necessary to develop all the major points of the beginning, you’re giving the reader all the information to experience every emotion you present them and to keep coming back for more.
What some don’t suspect is that the beginning sets up the end. The story must begin and end in a way that readers will expect that exact ending. Which is why endings are so disappointing when they come out of nowhere. A great ending depends on a great beginning. Now, grasshopper, that includes twist endings. Because, like I said earlier, a good twist ending is hinted at all along. It’s not just suddenly there, jumping out from behind the curtain and shouting ‘ta-da!’
How to craft a great beginning is hard. There is a reason most authors rewrite their beginnings so many times. It can be hard to achieve beginning perfection (or at least as close as us mere mortals can get). That means rewriting, stressing, and general depression over getting it right. But, keep at it. Rewrite, go back to the drawing board and craft more. Push for excellence in your beginning, do everything you can, because your manuscript will be so much better for it.
That, grasshoppers, is why I say beginnings are so critical. But, as always, I welcome a good debate. So you can tell me if you think middles or ends are more critical.
Now, go forth and write!