This might seem like a weird place to have this lesson. You would think it would go first. Well it’s not. Get over it. Essentially the logic behind this was that since most of the writers here are part way through stories, it would be better to start off with something that would be relevant to them. Now that the Academy has built up a bit more of a collection, I felt it would be a good time to discuss how to actually start a story.
We’ve discussed world building already, so I won’t talk about that. (For reference, information on that can be found here and here. This lesson will be directed more towards getting things moving once you’ve come up with all the background ideas.
Personally, I find this quite difficult. Often I create an enormous plot, an in-depth world, and then struggle to put the first words on the page. From talking to others, I’ve discovered that this isn’t an uncommon problem. I’m going to take the bulk of this lesson from the words of one of my girlfriend’s tutors at university named Dr. Tony Fisher. His speciality is focused more towards scriptwriting but everything he says in this instance is applicable to almost every kind of writing.
I’ll add that, like any piece of advice you’ll get, Dr. Fisher’s advice is not objectively correct so if it doesn’t work for you, don’t worry, but it is very useful and worth thinking about.
Situating the Reader
(a) Get the reader into the story by introducing them to the world of the story via a character with whom they can identify.
Ask: - is the world of the story one we are already familiar with?
- what does the reader need to know?
(b) Familiarise the reader with the ‘world of the story’
- train them up by carefully selecting an appropriate situation.
Okay, so this all sounds pretty abstract so I (Gama) will make an attempt at explaining them in a more accessible manner. What Dr. Fisher is saying is that a very useful technique to introducing the reader to the expansive world you’ve created, without going through the jarring process of just straight up explaining things which can get really boring, is to introduce a character that is as new to things as the reader is. For example, this happens in Inception: the new Architect (I can’t remember her name) is brought into the team so the whole process of entering people’s dreams has to be explained to her. The beauty of it is that the audience doesn’t even realise that they are having things explained to them but they are still brought up to speed with the story.
Now I know what you might be thinking: “I’m not writing a sci-fi/fantasy story, so this isn’t relevant to me!” or “I’m just writing a Pokémon story set in the gameverse or animeverse with nothing special so this isn’t relevant to me!” – not true. As well as the universe being fundamentally different from the one we are used to, this can refer to things as simple as the situation. An example of where this is done is The Godfather: the first film opens with a character who is not a Mafioso coming and asking the Godfather for a favour. When he does, the Godfather responds by giving some explanation of how things work, getting the audience involved without overdoing it.
This leads nicely on to the second thing that Dr. Fisher is saying: train them up with an appropriate situation. It can be tempting to just jump straight into the action, getting going with the first plot advancing scene that you’ve created but that can leave your reader lost and confused. It’s often useful to give your reader something which is more like just a regular day in the life of your central character, the place where the story takes place, or possibly both. This way the reader can understand things before the action starts happening.
The Inciting Incident
Okay, so the reader knows what’s going on. Now what? Well now we can get going! The ‘inciting incident’ is the KEY significant event of the introductory phase of your story. This is something you’ve probably all included in your stories anyway but you might not have been conscious of, and being conscious of it will help you be better at it. Just to be clear, once again, this is mostly Dr. Fisher’s work, though I’ve paraphrased it so it’s more accessible for an internet audience who aren’t going to read eleven sides of full writing.
The inciting incident is what changes the world of the story from a normal, average world into an exceptional one. To be clear, the inciting incident should make things exceptional by the standards you have set for the world you’re writing in. That means creating a cool world and then just explaining its day-to-day functioning isn’t going to fly: interesting things have to be going on with the exciting world you’ve created acting as a backdrop to these interesting things.
Although the inciting incident of the overarching plot may have happened before the point you’ve started writing that is not the inciting incident of the story. That is, the inciting incident of the story as the reader receives it has to happen in front of them and probably relatively near the beginning of the story. That doesn’t mean you can’t have the thing that makes everything happen take place before the story starts or otherwise off-screen but it does mean that there has to be something ‘on screen’ that initiates things from the point of view of the reader. Dr. Fisher uses Oedipus as an example, though I haven’t read or seen it myself. Essentially though, in Oedipus, Oedipus apparently kills his own father, becomes King of Thebes and a terrible misfortune assails the city all before the play even begins. The inciting incident from the point of view of the audience is in actual fact Creon informing Oedipus in the second scene that he can overcome the misfortune if he can find the killer of his father. This is what gets the actual on-screen action going and this is the inciting incident. Once you know what your inciting incident is you can work on making it as exciting as possible: remember, it’s going to be one of the most important parts of your story, and, perhaps most importantly, the one that decides whether your readers are going to spend their time on your story after all.
There’s a lot more than this but I thought that for now it would be helpful to focus on only the most central areas of the lesson. If there’s a lot of demand and interest in this lesson, I’ll add some more in a future lesson. For now, I’d really like to hear people’s thoughts on this, whether they be positive or negative. I’d also like to hear what techniques people currently use to get going on their stories, no matter how simple and complex they are.