Where Should I Start My Story? (the truth)

by Diane Holmes, (a) Chief Alchemist of Pitch University, (b) lover of learning, and (c) writer of fiction, non-fiction, and the occasional manifesto.


Where to begin: Isn’t this the worst question ever? 

questions It’s so important (readers won’t read on unless you nail the opening), so frustrating (why isn’t it right yet?), and so "unprovable" (this one is 93% right, woohoo!). 

And heck, even if you do happen to stumble upon the right place to start, you’ll never know it. 

It’ll still look like lame words on a page.  You’ll rewrite it into something worse. (Oh, the agony.  The shame.  The total irony of being a writer and finding out that Words. Are. The. Enemy.)


The idea that there’s a perfect place to start at story is wrong.  There are many perfect places to start a story.

We writers get confused, because we study stories that are already written, and we talk about how opening X is the perfect opening for a specific book.  As if it’s the only opening that could ever exist.

But in truth, what we’re really noticing is that a particular opening did work very well, and the writer avoided a sucky opening.

So, if there are many perfect openings and many sucky openings, how do you find at least ONE perfect opening?  How do you know where to start your story?

And this, my friend, is where all the advice fails us.


Pretty much all the advice out there falls into this category for me.

Example 1:  Open "in medias res." 

You mean “anywhere” anywhere, as long as it’s in the middle of things will do? Boring things, violent things, things that don’t matter? 

Of course it is Latin, so it sounds smart. 

Example 2: When things change!  (Or at the Inciting Incident or In The Ordinary World of the protagonist, etc.)

There’re lots of changes, so which one?  But more importantly, doing this doesn’t make it a "right" opening.  You’re not guaranteed an opening that works for the reader.  There’s nothing here about quality, nothing about the needs of your story or the hopes of the reader.

Example 3: Open with the character and setting, and make sure to get across everything we need to know, plus a really good hook!"

Thanks for the laundry list.

But isn’t this advice sort of like telling a chef to make sure to use food, probably a protein and a carb?  Oh, and vegetables are nice, too?


Open any place where you can…

(a) enter with a JUICY piece of story information (character, plot, setting, anything!)…

(b) that captures the reader’s IMAGINATION and…

(c) ultimately PULLS her into a story JOURNEY…

(d) that SPANS the book or script or whatever.


Gone Girl‘ By Gillian Flynn

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very ?rst time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a ?nely shaped head.You could imagine the skull quite easily.

I’d know her head anywhere.


(a) Whoa, a husband who obsesses about his wife’s head and can imagine the skull quite easily.  Now that’s a creepy-interesting character.

(b) This isn’t going to turn out well, is it?  I’m already imagining stuff that could happen.  Bad stuff.  Oh, noes.  Maybe it’s already happened….

(c) I’ve got to find out where this goes, because I know this links directly to the story I was hoping for (when I read the back blurb):

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick Dunne’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River.

(d) I’m being pulled into the story question that matters, the one that will be resolved by the time the book is over:  What happened to the wife?

Plus there’s all that mighty fine prose.  That’s a bonus for sure.

Put it all together and bam!  The reader and the story are well served.  And they’re joined together for all the pages to come.

And that’s how you start a story.

clip_image004Diane writes two alternating columns for Freelance-Zone:Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery and Marketing-Zone:Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.