It’s no secret that the start of the story is one of the hardest to master. The opening scene is your best chance to catch your reader and to hook them into reading your story the rest of the way through. As the author, you already have a love and admiration for your characters. Your reader however, does not, and you may only have a few paragraphs to capture their attention long enough to get them to care.
The key part is to figure out where your story really starts.
Stories are all driven by conflict. Frequently your conflict will force the character to make a change into a new normal. Although it might be tempting to start with a look at what their ‘old’ normal looks like, keep in mind that this is oftentimes largely unnecessary. You can usually rely on your audience to fill in some of the details—we all wake up in the morning and generally have a morning routine that involves getting dressed, eating breakfast and preparing for the day ahead.
Instead of starting with the old normal, ask yourself what moment is when the conflict first touches your character? At what point in their otherwise ordinary day does the conflict become personal?
Most people have goals. Characters should be no different. By looking at the point where their personal goals are threatened by the story’s conflict, you get closest to the start of the story. Not only do you give your character a reason to react to the conflict, you’re also giving your readers something to care about: The character’s goal is jeopardized. How will they still achieve their goals despite this threat?
It’s not uncommon to find stories that have started too far back. We’ve all heard the advice against starting with the character waking up and looking in the mirror and so on and so forth. There is a reason for this: It happens a lot. Often enough that it’s practically a trope. Although it’s more common in YA, there’s examples of it across all genres. Your story’s start should be strong enough to skip a boring introduction to your characters. Make us care first.
As an exercise: Take a look at your current manuscript and its opening scene. Typically you only have between 5-20 pages to catch a reader’s attention, so look at the first 10 pages (roughly the first 2000 words). Read these and ask yourself where in those first ten pages the main conflict becomes personal? Where is your character threatened? If it’s not within the first 10 pages, remove them from your manuscript (I recommend putting those extra pages into another document or folder, in case you find a use for them later). Then look at the next 10 pages. Keep doing this until you find the point where the conflict affects your character.