Imagine your story is a sphere. The entire universe of your story is contained within that sphere. You’ve spent days, weeks, and maybe even months and years becoming familiar with every corner of that universe. You know all the characters and most of their backstories. You know what has happened and what will happen. You know the location of the story and where the characters will end up. Sure, some details might be vague to you now, but you know you’ll work through it.
However, with all that knowledge, there is the danger of forgetting your readers don’t know all that information. Remember, your story is a sphere. You are within it, but your readers are outside of it. Each book you write is a different sphere even if they’re all in the same series. Your task as the writer is to pull your readers into your story like you’re reaching out of the sphere from the inside and snatching the readers to pull them in. This is when the beginning of the story is especially important.
When a reader picks up your book, they are standing outside the sphere, staring at it—maybe they’re circling it trying to determine whether or not to actually invest all that time and energy to become completely engrossed with the story. Is it worth their while? They may give it a chance and open their mind to the words whispered by your tale. They draw closer to see the images of the story flashing across the surface of the sphere. If the images are too blurry or unclear and just glimmers of light, the readers will likely withdraw because it’s too confusing. They don’t want to take the time to sort through a poorly constructed beginning. However, if the images are flashes of ordinary life with mundane every day conversation without a central character to follow or real purpose, this reflects too much of real life, which is what the reader is trying to escape, so this also will turn him away as well.
When you begin a story, it is crucial to set the environment even if the character doesn’t know where exactly she is. Say the character wakes up in a dark room with no memory of how she got there, and she’s not even sure where there is. Just by her being in a room shows us she’s not in a cave, she’s not underwater, she’s not under snow after being overtaken by an avalanche. She’s in some kind of building. There might be no windows, so she could be underground. If there’s a light, then that informs us wherever she is takes place where there’s technology. If it’s a candle, we’re could be led to believe it’s sometime before electricity. There might be furniture or a lack thereof, and this also informs us a bit about the environment. You see, the first question you ask when you wake in a strange place is, “Where am I?” The reader asks the same question when they step into a new story, and you have to give them something concrete to grasp onto if you expect them to follow your lead.
If your story starts off with a chase scene, you still must establish (in brief passing mentions) the environment. Are we in a modern-day city or a medieval village? In a forest? In the desert? On a snowy mountain? Or on the beach? Where are we? When are we? The character you’re following may know exactly what is happening and why, and that information may not be indulged to us readers immediately since there isn’t time for that, but we trust as soon as there’s a pause in the action, we’ll get some kind of information even if it isn’t a lot—at least it’ll be something. We may not even know if the person we’re following is the protagonist or the antagonist. So, set the setting but in passing. If they’re running through an alleyway of a major city, have the character that’s being chased grab some garbage bins and throw them into the alleyway as obstacles for his pursuers. This immediately tells us we’re likely in a modern city. Gunshots could be fired, and this confirms the thought of it being in modern era. Have them race across a street, dodging cars at a stoplight, and the character could look down the street, recognizing a major landmark of the city, and this could identify the location without having to tell us where it is. But keep the action going because we don’t want the character to get hit by a car or shot.
If you’re starting in a full-fledged battle where everyone is fighting, it is important to set the scene. Maybe a soldier is sneaking through buildings or alleyways. Show the destruction of the city—this helps establish the location. Show the lives lost although you don’t have to go into gruesome detail. Maybe the soldier stumbles upon this child that’s hiding, and they have a brief whispered conversation of the child asking for reassuring that everything’s going to be okay, and the soldier says it will be, but then you show in his own mind how he’s doubtful of this and hates that kids have to witness things like this. Even if we don’t know what the fighting is all about or who is fighting whom for what reason, we get drawn into the story because there are concrete images we can relate to.
If you’re the kind of writer who wants to take your reader through dream-worlds where nothing is what it seems and the setting can shift with a mere thought, that’s all right, but before you can confuse your readers like that, you must first gain their trust through a more traditional approach. Even the film ‘Inception’, which is all about dreams and subconsciousness, starts in a seemingly normal environment. As you follow the characters, you come to realize things are not what they seem, and then you’re thrown into a world where people build dreams to plant ideas in other people’s mind. Even though that’s a far-fetched and strange idea, you’re willing to go along for the ride because you’ve become intrigued by the characters and the storyline. This is the kind of trust you must establish with your readers in order to take them into such a bizarre tale. It is possible, but it must be carefully and intentionally crafted. It’s not something you can just throw together and say, “My readers are smart. They’ll figure it out.” No—they won’t, and it’s not because they can’t but rather they don’t care to figure it out since you didn’t make the effort to give them a reason to trust you.
So, when you begin a story, although you may be the most knowledgable person about that sphere of a universe, you must keep in mind that every reader who approaches your book has absolutely no commitment to any book you write if the beginning is poorly presented. Even long-time fans may dwindle away because your work isn’t reaching the old standard you set with your other work.
Also, remember, if you’ve written a series, a reader may go to a book that’s later on in the series without realizing there are books prior to it, but it shouldn’t make a difference. The reader should be able to read that book and slip into that world without a problem. They’ll just have a different viewpoint of the entire story since they started in the middle, but the story should still be clear enough for them to engage with it without a problem. I will discuss recapping from previous stories later, but here we are focusing on the opening of a story.
Keep it clear. You may use all the flowery language you wish, but if it’s not clear, it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying to write ‘simple’ and to dumb down your writing, but rather fine-tune your opening presentation and confidently captivate your audience. It’s a skill—not some superpower you wake up with one day. Sure, for some people, beginnings come easy to them, but even those people need to make sure they start sharp because any skill can rust given time.
Next week we’ll discuss how to recap events from previous books in a series without boring the reader.