257 – Beginning Your Story
Every story has to start somewhere. Believe us, we checked. If there was some way to skip this part, we’d be all over that. But since beginnings are a requirement, it’s time to talk about them once again. We cover the competing needs of a beginning, how to balance those needs, and what happens if you don’t. Plus, a whirlwind tour of all the bad ways writers try to start their stories. We hope you enjoy it, and get some useful knowledge too!
Generously transcribed by Brigitta M. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Oren: Welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is…
Oren: And Chris, I have a problem. I’m not sure how to begin this podcast. I feel like I need to like give a hook of some kind to get people interested, but also if there’s anyone new I need to help them get to know us so that they’ll care about the podcast and I just don’t know how to do that. That seems really hard.
Chris: Yeah, it is really hard. Maybe we should just do lots of critique posts on the beginnings of other podcasts. Which I tear them apart and mock them. That will definitely help us. Right?
Oren : People do really seem to like those in blog form. Today we’re talking about beginning your story because it’s hard and I don’t like doing it. I would rather just put an emotion at the beginning of the story and have you feel that emotion and then I can get on with the rest.
Chris: It’s been about a 200 episodes since we talked about beginnings, had an episode devoted to beginnings. And we’ve evolved quite a bit on the topic over time.
Mostly we’re just crankier and more critical now. So surprising. But currently I think of beginnings of stories. It’s having the chicken and an egg problem. It’s the big chicken and egg problem with storytelling where what you want is tension to start the story and story structure opens with a hook.
It opens with a problem or mystery. Which is there to create tension and it closes when that is resolved, but they’re not. It’s not effective unless you care about that outcome and you specifically the protagonist. That’s what the protagonist is for, for the audience to care. And then you care what happens to the protagonist and therefore consequences matter.
And therefore tension is created. But it’s really difficult to both introduce a hook and get audiences to care about the protagonists at the same time. It’s just very difficult to do those at once. Then storytellers are stuck with this dilemma of do you open with a fight that just doesn’t mean much, or do you open with a more personal scene about the protagonist?
But there isn’t a lot of tension. And it’s kind of slow. And so a lot of things that we see in beginnings of stories are all different ways of responding to this and trying to deal with this problem specifically. We can go over some different ones that are imperfect. And we talked about this too in our last podcast.
We’ve talked about it on the blog before there’s, you know, Oren’s favorite, the prologue.
Oren: I do really love prologues. I had a whole post about how much I loved them. But I mean, the prologue is kind of weird, it’s almost like a non-solution because you’re stuck with the same problem except that now you have the extra problem of at the end you’re going to skip to something else.
Right, because you still have the issue of, well…do I start with conflict… or do I start with..? Basically, maybe I’m wrong here, but I feel like we’re choosing between starting with conflict and starting with attachment. Is that accurate do you think?
Chris: Technically we want to get to a place where there’s tension and conflicts are usually there as manifestations and to create tension, but a conflict you don’t care about doesn’t effectively create tension.
So if you want to create tension attachment at some level is kind of prerequisite. You can create some tension if the stakes are just big enough that people would just care, regardless of having no emotional investment in the story. Like, “Hey, the world is about to explode.” Okay, maybe that would be enough.
To get people to care a little bit without any emotional investment in this particular world or these particular characters. But it’s really, again, chicken and the egg. You need both, but you can’t do them at the same time. So what imperfect thing do you start with? And with a prologue, can be anything there.
Just stuff before the story. But the idea behind the prologue is if we don’t have the burden of introducing the main character. Then we can show the highest stakes conflict in the world. So we can show the big bad scheming to blow everything up cause we don’t have to hang out with the protagonist.
We’re not going to try to build attachment. We’re just going to try to introduce that big conflict and hope it’s big enough to get attention. And then after that. Usually you transition to the slower character scene, but this issue is that it doesn’t have the protagonist,
Oren: But that isn’t really any better than just starting the normal story with a big fight scene or whatever.
That doesn’t have any context. I feel like authors, for some reason, think it’s better, but it isn’t. It’s: Oh well, okay, here I have a different fight that I don’t have any context for. And then it’s a little worse. Because once they finally do figure out the context, you’re like, I did the work to make that happen and understand it and now I have to go to a completely different character doing something else.
Chris: Yeah. And then we have the issue where a lot of times to establish the threat, you’ve got a viewpoint character that’s this side character who dies. And this is really upsetting to a lot of people because they think that that’s the main character.
Cause the story opens with them, only to watch the character that they got attached to. Who was in trouble can hold. And I do think that there’s a certain amount of you’re writing a plot. You don’t know how to get the protagonist in trouble right away. And it’s just easier to make a side character get killed.
Where there might be a little bit of element of laziness to this where we don’t have to rework our plot if we just don’t have the protagonist included. And the other thing that I just really don’t like about prologues is it does feel right? Many storytellers think that as long as they put a prologue in, then the next scene can be as boring as they want.
Which is not true. You should just never take, you should not get complacent. You should never take the audience for granted. And then the opposite way, which is the ordinary world and inciting incident where we have a character that’s just hanging around at home, nothing’s happening. We get to know them a little bit, and then they get in trouble. But that’s a pretty slow start. Generally there’s not enough conflict there.
Oren: Depending on how long it takes, that can be something of an issue. People might just not make it to your conflict. Also, I have to say I understand conceptually the slow opening and then something happens.
I can’t think of a story off the top of my head that has started really slow and then gotten better.
Chris: Oh, Lord of the Rings. I mean, a lot of the Rings is kind of boring all the way through, but especially if has a long opening.
Oren: It does but if you found that opening boring, the rest of Lord of the Rings isn’t going to be any better You’re going to find the rest of it boring too. There are things in the beginning that are interesting if you care to look for them, but it’s certainly gonna lose a lot of readers that way. In my experience, when a story starts slow, it will be slow for the rest of the story.
Chris: But that traditional formula of, of having that inciting incident is meant so that you build attachment first before the conflict arrives..
So generally what we advocate is to try to get as close as you can to doing both at the same time, having both conflict and getting to know the main character. Yeah, it’s hard. It’s real tough, but I would like to see storytellers try to do that and get as close as to it as you can.
When I advocate for opening, I advocate for. What is the highest stakes problem that you can show the main character getting in right away? And if it has to be a personal problem and not a life or death problem, then do the personal problem.
Oren: That’s my preferred approach is to have the characters dealing with some smaller scale problem that fits more within their everyday lives. And then you can use that to kind of get to know them before you have your big inciting incident.
Chris: Although I do think that the very best openings are when the hook that’s in the beginning is big enough that you can generate instant sympathy for the main character. If you can open with a main character facing a very serious problem, I think that is the best way to open a couple of books that do this well, in my opinion. I’ve talked to Bob about this before. I wrote a whole blog post talking about Brandon Sanderson’s Elantras and the way it opens. But the main character, he wakes up, there’s a little bit of an exposition to try to explain the word really fast happening, but I think it’s worth it.
He wakes up. He has this curse. He gets tossed out into this abandoned city immediately, and that helps you build attachment because you sympathize with this character that just had this bad thing happen to him. Similarly, the opening to The Martian by Andy Weir has a main character who’s just been abandoned on Mars by himself, and that’s sympathetic.
But also, I will say that with The Martian, Andy Weir is really good with this first person epistolary voice. Just by listening to Mark Watney’s voice, you get to know him a little bit and he has a strong personality and that also helps build attachment even as the main conflict is being introduced.
So sometimes you really can have your cake and eat it too. It’s possible. I don’t think it’s possible for every single story, in which case, you just try to find the most significant conflict that you can have right away.
Oren: And I mean, I think that a big instance of whether or not it’s going to work is what is the scale of your conflict? If the main conflict of your story is world-changing. That’s a good indicator that you can’t just immediately start with it because in order for world changing to have the effect you want, you probably need the reader to have some understanding of what the world was like before.
And that’s part of the reason why a lot of fantasy stories, for example,start with a getting to know you sequence. and then we introduced the, Oh, well now maybe the, you know, Mordors going to come over the mountains or whatever, cause you get at least some understanding of what the world is like now.
And so you see the stakes of well, the world’s got to change at some capacity for good or bad. That’s why I’m a big fan of books like Curse of Chalion starts this way. But with the Curse of Chalion, we have Caz, our main character is trying to get to a castle. Where he thinks he might find some help and he doesn’t have any money and he’s alone on the road.
And so this actually poses a reasonable challenge. And he runs into some problems. And that’s because it’s a very personal scale problem. The fate of the world isn’t resting on this as far as we know, that gives us a chance to get to know has to build the world a little bit.
And it’s not until we actually get to the castle that the bigger plot of royal intrigue starts. I think that was important,
Chris: But I would also say that the problems that he has, the smaller personal scale problems that he has developed sympathy with him at the beginning.
Also continue to stay relevant later. Which I think a good thing to have when you have an unrelated conflict that just doesn’t really come up again at the beginning of a story. I think it’s better than no conflict, but it is a little unsatisfying. I think better if that conflict that’s in the beginning matters a little bit.
And with Kaz, you know, he’s just come through this huge ordeal. And is making his way finally back to some place that is actually safe and will take care of him again and then he got into the heat. We learn how he got into that ordeal. Then he was betrayed. The people who portrayed our villains throughout the story in the political intrigue, the fact that he has scars on his back is a plot point later because he’s accused of deserting, right?
And supposedly people accused him saying, “Whoa, see those scars are from him being whipped because he deserted” as opposed to him being sold into slavery. So all of the things that happened to him and that personal thing stays relevant. If you have a character arc in your story that you can introduce the problems in that arc in the beginning, I think that’s a good way to go with a smaller conflict.
It’s character arcs are personal, make it easy to get to know the character, but it still stays relevant throughout the story.
Oren: Ideally you want the smaller conflict that you start with to lead into the bigger one. But it’s just a little easier to understand at the beginning, A Memory Called Empire does the same thing.
We start with the conflict of Mohit. Being given it’s called an imogen, in the story. It’s basically a memory device that the previous hosts had. It recorded their personality and they liked to use it to teach people their new skills or what have you, and she’s been given one that’s malfunctioning.
And so she’s trying to, she’s struggling with that. And that’s a personal conflict, but it matters for the rest of the story. And then from there we gradually build up the Imperial intrigue plots and then her, Imogen, being an issue is there for the whole time. But that gives us a way to get to know Mohit a little bit before we have to start explaining how complicated the space Imperial politics are.
Chris: I think another tactic that might work in some cases is to look at your big world problem. And think about what effects it has and how it might be creating smaller problems at a smaller scale that your protagonist might have to deal with. Like if there’s a big villain who is attacking the kingdom, but from afar, maybe that changes.
Some trade goods are no longer available because this person is terrorizing maybe another kingdom that’s a trading partner. And your character is a merchant that suddenly finds these things unavailable. So you could do something that it, the effects ripple out and there is something smaller, but your protagonist has to deal with it right now.
Right, and then later we see how that’s connected to the big problem. That might be another way to go about the get to the external conflict and make an immediate story open and conflict that somehow connects.
Oren: If you do start with just a big high stakes conflict, then that can still work. If you are able to create.
Obvious, easy to understand reasons why I should care about it. And an example I’ll use is actually from a visual medium, the opening of the first Star Wars film. Now obviously Star Wars opens with a title crawl, which kind of explains what’s happening. But even if you don’t watch the title crawl or can’t remember it, I can never remember what the title crawls say.
At the opening battle, we have a very small ship running from a much larger, more powerful ship, and we don’t technically know what’s going on here. It’s possible that smaller ship is full of space Hitlers and then they’re the bad guys. But we don’t know that. All we know is that there’s a very small ship getting its butt kicked by a much larger and more powerful ship. And so we’re immediately going to sympathize with the smaller ship. And then of course, there’s just some cinematography tricks that they use to make the star destroyer look really menacing, which is, you know, very valuable. A writer might not have access to those things, but there are other things you can do in the way you describe stuff.
A common problem with starting with a big fight, if you want to see what that looks like is I would recommend The Blade Itself, which I did a critique of because this starts with a life or death conflict. Where the main character is fighting for his life, but I don’t actually know who he is or who his opponents are.
And so I don’t have a particular reason to cheer for either one of them. And he seems to be more powerful than them. So I’m inclined to cheer for them because they seem like the underdogs. And now later we find out that they attacked him and ambushed in like maybe killed his friends.
So we find out then that he’s the one who’s kind of in the right but I don’t know any of that at the beginning. So I’m just sitting here being yeah, and now he’s fighting another guy. Yep. He’s definitely doing that open.
Chris: Do you remember with him just like getting hit or hitting somebody or,
Oren: I think it opens with him running through the forest is what’s happening.
I don’t remember if he specifically gets hit although I could look it up.
Chris: I’m just thinking if that had been set up so that. It opens just when he starts to realize he might’ve walked into an ambush. So he’s facing an unknown and kind of overwhelming danger that just might’ve been a little bit more compelling way to open up then when the fight has already started, because an ambush just feels menacing, right?
Oren: So the way it opens is he’s running through the forest. And then he starts talking about the dog man who we don’t know who the dog man is, just someone named the dog man, or maybe a creature called the dog man. We don’t know. So that’s kind of confusing.
Chris: It’s very disorienting.
Oren: It does describe his enemy is using a cruel looking spear. And I guess that was kind of an attempt to do that. A lot of telling and I don’t know what a cruel looking spear looks like.
Chris: It also just feels kind of cliche, right? It doesn’t want to make me want to take these dog men or whatever.
Oren: Seriously. Another thing that the blade itself is a good example of, in this case, what you shouldn’t do is your opening needs to establish what genre you’re writing in. That’s important, and the blade itself doesn’t do that. After finishing the first chapter, I couldn’t actually tell if this was a fantasy story because it seemed almost like this guy didn’t expect to find himself in the woods.
And so I was wondering, is this a scifi story about a guy who crashed on a planet? And that sort of thing happens a lot. You need to establish things, if there’s magic in your setting and it’s fairly common, you should establish it very quickly. Now if magic is really rare, you don’t necessarily have to, like if your character will be surprised to come across magic, then that’s fine.
You don’t have to establish a bad early. But if magic is a thing that your character sees on even a semi-regular basis, you should probably establish it because otherwise it’s like, is there magic in this world?
Chris: I have a post playing your opening passages where I have a suggestion for an information hierarchy about what needs to be introduced immediately and then what next and what next.
And of course, that’s the other big issue with openings is we have to fill all this information in while we’re trying to make everything engaging. I think the first thing is, what kind of story is this? Is this a science fiction fantasy? What is the basic environment that we’re looking at here?
And then the other thing is that for a narrated work, the actual viewpoint, what perspective are you using? Is this a epistolary? Is this omniscient? Is it limited? Simply making the rules of the narration clear should be evident in the first paragraph. Otherwise, sometimes with omniscient. you can’t tell that it’s omniscient right away. It could be omniscient or it could be limited. But if you, for instance, write a couple paragraphs where you are writing an omniscient, but it seems like it could be limited once you actually break out something that the main character wouldn’t know in the third paragraph.
It could be jarring. I do think if you’re writing an omniscient. You should just put something that the character obviously doesn’t know, right in that first paragraph, you know? Or if it’s an epistolary or it should be obvious that it’s epistolary in that first paragraph so that it’s not jarring for somebody to discover it later.
I think that’s the other thing that people need to know right away. Where is then, after that we can get to the basics of what’s really central to the story? What does the main character look like. You know, are they old or young? That kind of thing. What’s their gender? You know, whatever.
Those also, why I would say it would be next level after the basic genre and environment and narrative rules. Next it’s okay, what is this character like? Things like that. Getting the very basic things first and then going from there.
Oren: Yeah. I would also say going back a little bit in the conversation, if you were going to go with the other option and focus more on like a get to know you moment, if there’s not going to be a lot of conflict there, your next best thing is to, I would say, use novelty to try to get the reader to come along with you and learn these lines.
You know, less interesting things. And then once you’ve done that, then you can introduce some conflict. I don’t think that’s a great solution, but it’s better than nothing. If you don’t have conflict and you’re trying to build attachment, put some novelty in there to make this reading more fun.
Chris: I do think that adding novelty to the opening is always a good idea if you can. Novelty works very fast. And it keeps people entertained when there isn’t conflict. The thing that I’m always worried about is how is the storyteller going to judge whether they have enough novelty?
I am just worried about people relying on the novelty to keep their audience entertained, but then they overestimate how novel their world building is. For instance, and just create boring. I would just say definitely add novelty where you can and try to make it novel. I just don’t recommend relying on that if you can possibly help it cause you don’t know. It’s hard to judge.
Oren: I think that’s true. I’m just trying to imagine, cause I generally err more towards conflict. Then attachment when starting a story, but, I’m trying to imagine how doing it the other way and that’s the best explanation. That’s the best idea I could come up with.
Chris: I think that relying more on novelty probably works better if you really are creating something that’s very unique. I think it’s going to be harder in a genre or story that’s fairly typical. If you’re writing superhero stories, for instance, are just very common right now.
And it’s going to be hard to maximize novelty if you’re writing a superhero story that’s Marvel-ish. Whereas if you have a world that’s using a very, a setting that’s very uncommon. Like you’re underwater, for instance, I think you’re going to have an easier time maximizing novelty there, but it just depends.
If you have a premise that’s super unique. Then sometimes you can rely on the premise to create novelty at the beginning.
Oren: I would also say that the beginning is definitely not the place in the vast majority of circumstances to do something weird or experimental or try to really shake things up by being strange and different.
But because the beginning is where you’re trying to convince your reader to read your story and if you confuse them. Because you’re doing something weird. Then that’s going to be a serious problem, and I’ve seen a few stories start this way. Like a crown for cold silver starts this way, where it’s the point, you get the point of view from the villain who is destroying this town.
But even though it’s in close, limited, his narration won’t tell you why he’s destroying this town. Or who sent him to do it because that’s going to be a mystery later and this is all done so that we can have this reveal of this harmless looking old lady who turns out to be a badass. And even though she’s the main character, we don’t start in her point of view because the author really wanted that reveal and couldn’t do it in her perspective.
And if you asked me, it would just be better not to have that reveal. That scene would have been better if we were in the actual main characters point of view. As her village was being destroyed and she was rushing to do something about it.
Chris: Reveals ruined so many openings cause they’re deprived of the information.
That’s actually interesting. Just so we can reveal it later. So you want an engaging opening, thinking twice about any reveals that you have coming up. Even later in the story, you can can deprive the whole story of emotional interest because we have a reveal and we gotta hide things.
Oren: That one was especially bad because there was information that the narrator was clearly hiding from us because we weren’t allowed to know why this guy was doing what he was doing.
But even if that hadn’t been a thing, even if there hadn’t been some really obviously contrived info hiding, I still think that would have been a mistake.
Chris: I have to say, I think storytellers consistently overestimate. How much the audience is going to care about mysteries that they introduce, and it’s usually just far more effective to introduce a conflict with stakes than it is to be like what’s going on with that person.
If you don’t care about the situation and you’re being introduced for the first time, you probably don’t care what’s happening with this mysterious character. Probably just doesn’t mean anything to you for the first time. Going back to the whole weird and experimental, the audience is typically very disoriented in the beginning because you have to figure out everything that’s happening.
And so I do think that the other issue with the novelty tactic is that you’re like, Hey, I’ve got all these weird things in my setting that are really novel. Let’s put them in the beginning. If you’re not careful, it’s not novel. It’s just really disorienting and confusing. So I think if you’re going to put lots of new and different things in your opening to introduce novelty, you might want to think about.
You know, also exposition, more exposition in your opening to explain those things. Honestly, exposition is not always bad. Sometimes it’s bad. It’s not always bad.
Oren: It’s very necessary. It’s just that it’s easy to have. Too much is the problem, but some stories have too little, and it’s like inflation versus deflation where everyone’s like too much inflation is bad, and then the moment you have deflation, it’s like, Oh, this is the worst thing that ever happened.
Please bring back the inflation.
All right, well, speaking of beginnings, we are no longer at the beginning of this podcast. We are now at the end of this podcast. You see what I did there?
Chris: A very clever, very clever.
Oren: I thought so. Uh, all right, so, that’s all we’re going to have time for this week. If anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at dot com.
But before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We will talk to you next week.
Chris: Do you have a story that needs another pair of eyes? We offer consulting and editing services on Mythcreants.com.
This has been the Mythcreants podcast opening, closing theme. The princess who saved herself by Jonathan Colton.