A question to all of you writers, how important is the start of the story to you?
Most of us can say that the beginner, those first few pages, that first scene, is important to grab your readers into the story and keep them interested. It’s common in a lot of stories for it to open to something exciting and that might be difficult to explain until much later. Others prefer a slow opening, something that slowly grows and keeps the writer interested.
While I am neither a published author (working towards it), nor am I a publisher, I can’t actually state this with any real education or experience; this is simply my opinion; but I find having something super exciting to get peoples attention tends to be the easiest way to get to the readers. Let’s start off the story with a murder, and describe the murder, or the image of the bloodied beaten body on the ground, or the murderer chopping up the pieces of the body, etc. Let’s start off with a graphic nightmare and the main character awakening from it. Let’s have a huge a battle in which the main character comes out alive.
There are hundreds of ways to grab a readers attention by starting off with something big. For me, I would find a normal opening to be the most challenging way of grabbing someone’s attention. I can’t really argue this as thoroughly as I might want to, one of my openings has the main character in a jail cell and no memory of how she got there, and my other opening has an alien invasion. What both of these openings do, is establish that the world is not how it always appeared to be, and that this huge event has triggered a chain of reactions in the characters lives that slowly begin to unfold through out the stories; both with the characters history and their future roles to play in the story. This doesn’t mean that the main characters are chosen ones, just shows an understanding for the characters and their importance in their own stories. Because really, as an author, that’s what I’m doing: I’m telling THEIR stories.
For me, the characters need to be fleshed out in my mind. What characteristics do my characters have? What are their strengths? Their weaknesses? How would they react in any situation, dangerous, fun, casual, stressful? Where would they strive best? Where is their knowledge? Are they strong or weak physically? Are they strong or weak emotionally? And why are they the way they are? What experiences and upbringing shaped them in this way? Why would they feel rage towards a single person? Or are they the type of character who is not emotionally mature enough and channels their rage to everyone around them? Are they suffering from trauma, or depression? Do they have anxiety issues? Do they have PTSD? How do these effect them on a daily basis? How does this effect them during times of stress? What could trigger a depressive/anxious/traumatic episode for them? What are those triggers and why do they put the character in such a state? What separates this character from a stereotype or from others like them? Why are they different? Why does their story matter more than the other characters? Or is the story about all the characters?
The questions could go on, and on, and on, and for the sake of those who read my blog, I’m going to stop there. I always have a million questions about my characters. Some of them get answered when I throw them into situations that would require reactions specific to that characters traits and abilities. A character who spends their life playing video games with no admirable traits, who is suddenly thrown into a situation where a terrorist attacks happens, and they find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time, would probably crack under pressure, would not be a character to perform some heroic feat. And it’s a simple answer to why that is; this character has no concept of events like that and has had nothing to tell them what to do in a situation like that. Sure, we read it in the news, but to experience something that traumatizing and to have to endure a fall out afterwards, most people would break. It would take a person who is trained to do those things, with plenty of experience in those types of situations, to be able to stand on their own two feet and be able to keep going. This doesn’t mean that the training and experience wouldn’t have an effect on the person; it absolutely would, it’s their ability to either handle their emotions, or compartmentalize, that helps them do their job. But any normal person below that would absolutely break under that type of pressure, because the reality is that it is traumatizing and it would change their lives.
Anyway, I got off track there. I need to have my characters developed first. Once I know a lot about my characters, I can associate a voice for them, and from there, the story. I will likely have an idea of how the story is going to go, at the very least, the beginning and the end. From there, I will at least have a few scenes in my mind in between, and then slowly the rest will come together. I’m a person who likes to work off of an outline; each scene with some guiding words, and structure. This doesn’t mean that I won’t stray from the outline, throwing in extra scenes that work with the flow of the narrative and the scenes before and after, I will 100% do this, and I have done it more times than I can count. But the main story arch is important to have at least a general idea of before you start writing.
I am aware that some people do write without thinking of any of these things. They just write and watches their story unfold as they go. This works for some writers, and that’s great! As a writer, you have to work with what you can do, and what you know produces some of your better, if not best, work.
To round out my point here, I am saying that it is effective to know how your story is going to begin, and eventually where it will end. For me, the important aspects of the main character help me to find the characters voice, and how they will position themselves in the story (this goes for supporting characters too). It’s important for me to know my characters better than they know themselves, and to really work within them. I also, personally, prefer characters who are flawed. The more flawed they are, the more human they are. But I also try to write, especially with older characters, characters who are emotionally mature at the very least. The younger the characters are, the less emotionally mature they might be, the more driven by their emotions instead of logic. Although, logic, in all honesty can be warped to a characters perception of the world. What might seem logical to one person, would seem illogical to someone else. For example, removing all the objects off a sink in order to clean the sink might be logical for one person, but for another they see it as being time consuming and if they’re careful enough they can simply lift the objects and clean under them. The latter would also seem illogical to the person who thinks the former is logical, and the former might believe the latter is lazy and more likely to end up with broken objects on the sink. It can be a vicious cycle, but sometimes fun to think about when developing characters.