Finding Your Story’s Beginning

Once you’ve started to get a sense for what your story is really about, you can start thinking about how you’re going to structure it. You might opt for a linear narrative that begins somewhere and ends somewhere later. You might find that you need to create one scene and then move to a second. You might find that you need to create a flashback scene within a framing scene. You might discover that your story is going to be fragmented in an entirely unpredictable way. What you need to figure out are the essential elements to understanding the heart of the story.

Then you’re going to have to figure out where your story begins. Because digital stories tend to be so short, I usually try to encourage people to create as much tension as quickly as possible. With their first sentence if possible. Or at least early in the scene, or early in the first scene. Maybe you introduce yourself as a mathematician whose mother always told you girls weren’t smart enough for math. Maybe you start with a description of losing that qualifying match for the state wrestling tournament for which you’d been training your whole life. Maybe your story begins with you leaving your bride at the altar. Just something that at least creates a question or curiosity for the audience. You don’t need to just SAY the question at the beginning of the story, though some stories do end up working well enough that way. And you don’t have to establish ALL of the tension or curiosity right at the beginning. You will have a second sentence that’s going to continue to develop the tension. Your third sentence is going to help, too. And so on.

It’s almost impossible to know where your story begins until you’ve written your long draft, identified what’s at stake, and tried out a variety of options for where it begins.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the images you choose for your story can also go a long way toward establishing a question/curiosity/conflict. Maybe your story opens with a brief description of Christmas morning in your childhood home, while on screen we see the ashes and charred frame of a destroyed house. Or maybe you talk about how you always thought your father was kind of an asshole, while on screen we see a man celebrating one of his children’s birthdays. I think using images is one of the most underrated strategies for creating tension in stories—mostly because we don’t have a lot of experience combining images with the spoken word.

And the last thing I want to say is that there’s a good chance you’re going to start structuring your story with a beginning, middle, and ending. And then at some point, you’re going to realize that the tension/curiosity/conflict takes to long to become evident. And you’ll probably cut more material to get to the good stuff faster, or you’ll rearrange the elements for the same reasons. And there will likely even be times when you realize that the story actually starts in a place you hadn’t expected. Maybe even a scene you haven’t written about yet. It’s almost impossible to know where your story begins until you’ve written your long draft, identified what’s at stake, and tried out a variety of options for where it begins.

For which of your own stories was it most difficult to find an opening? Which of your stories has the most creative beginning?

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