How to start a story strong (and not trip up)
The purpose of starting a story at a fast pace is to get the audience excited. (Ultimately the purpose is whatever you can make it but excitement is a good catch-all.) The benefits of an engaged reader are self-evident but as with any technique there are unseen obstacles when you move so fast the world blurs around you.
First above all, don’t forget what makes stories good. Give names, make characters. We should believe we are seeing people with hopes and dreams that will be affected, perhaps ended, by the opening conflict. A man looking long at a photograph with a softened face before dawning a ski mask and walking into a jewelry store works well enough to get us invested for the first scene. Find the kernels of personality laid at the start in the second draft and refine them.
That in mind, be sure you’re writing good action. Every choice the characters make, every piece of the environment should inform on one another and build to a dramatic moment. All actions should make logical sense. The goal at play and how it can be won or lost establishes narrative tension. If you can cut out an action scene and present it as a stand-alone story, it’s good.
After the hot opening, let the tires cool off. The audience has been punched in the face and, if the opening action was properly constructed, they want more. However, when writing any story, it’s important to have dynamics. If chapter one concludes in a thrilling car chase, then starting chapter two with another car chase or a shootout or something else that doesn’t change the tone will leave the audience bored. More yes, but not more of the same.
You don’t have to spend the second chapter explaining what just happened. Let the cool stuff play out and if we care about it then we might be interested in how it came to be. The rivalry between our protagonist’s gang and the villains’ gang can show the folly of an eye for an eye after we’ve seen the protagonist run for their life through dark city streets.
For chapter two onward, build upon the action. The first action packed scene doesn’t exist in a vacuum where explosions fill up the first five pages of a book or the first five minutes of a movie just to get the audience in an excitable mood. Like any scene, the action should have meaning in the story.
At the simplest level ask, what would this character do in this situation? They are in danger. Does the protagonist show a strong or weak sense of survival against the threat? Is their reaction flight or fight? How do they fly or fight? (Parkour takes the kind of person who trusts their own abilities to the death whereas MMA requires a brave soul to maintain extended contact with someone looking to do them harm.)
It could set up a moral code for the protagonist, him willing to sacrifice a man to aid in his escape but not a child. Then the rest of that story could test the protagonist’s convictions in a drip by drip wear against his conscious due to his inability to admit to his code’s faults and the degradation of his life from ignoring that reality.
If there’s a murder mystery at the end of chapter one then chapter two should be about trying to solve the murder. The entire story need not be about only the murder mystery but it can’t be ignored. (I’ll carve out an exception to my In Medias Res disapproval here. If the heroine’s dead in chapter one and comes back in chapter two’s flashback, then everything she does and everyone she sees and talks to are all nail-biters.)
I don’t like In Medias Res—if that wasn’t clear. It often confuses the timeline/storyline, it can spoil characters, plot elements, etc. If a character is not present in the big battle that includes all other members of an adventuring party then it’s obvious something happened between their introduction and the fight (death, leaving party, cursed with paralysis).
If you have to explain how a character finds himself stranded on an island then the questions you’ve hooked the audience with will be plot centered (the storms, the sea monsters, the betrayal) rather than character or thematic questions. Therefore, the kinetic force behind the plot hooks must be the character’s actions and faults. Otherwise, the randomness of the world that pushes the character around becomes the poorly masked hand of the author who needed a way to get the character from point A to B.
When it comes to the second chapter, don’t swerve. If you’re building upon the action in the first chapter, then there hasn’t been enough time for the audience to feel shocked when you pull the rug out. If the first chapter shows the child protagonist trying to sneak home before morning, we are invested in her accomplishing that task and thrilled by the conniving, thief-like tricks she employees.
If in chapter two we find out in a shocking twist that she’s a vampire then the audience’s expectation is set towards immediate action followed right after by a swerve. We’re still asking ourselves why she wants to get home before morning and why she’s so adept at the task when all the questions are answered or an entire lot of new questions supersede the old. Follow this and the audience won’t find any point in guessing at the causes of story elements; tension vanishes. Detract from this and the audience will suffer tonal and pacing whiplash.
If you still want to try and start off with a bang then good on you, it takes hutzpah.
There’s a comfort when writing to set up everything you think needs to be set up: The character’s backstory, their outlook, morals, appearance, the world, the rules of the world, what makes the story completely original and better than any other story like it.
However, this takes a lot of time. You must trust your abilities as a writer to convey all this information through the character’s actions, weed out everything superfluous, and simultaneously start a grander narrative, or a few. It’s the sweet science of writing to set up dominoes as you’re knocking them down.
I started a story in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a conversation. The secret is that the conversation didn’t matter. What mattered was what it revealed about the self-absorbed person telling the story and the listener’s (the protagonist’s) lack of confidence to interrupt (only doing so when his friend took a drink) and submissiveness to being interrupted. Once the conversation ended (on the first page, remember brevity) the protagonist revealed through his thoughts his loneliness in only having his self-absorbed friend to talk to, his poverty in relying on him to buy his dinner at the tavern, and his weathered gratefulness for what he has amongst a crowd of his better off neighbors who don’t care much about his situation. At that point, who cares what they were talking about? It leads to something of greater interest.
I also started a story in the middle of a battle. To ground the story, I said the entire battle was two lines of men in rectangular formations firing muskets at one another. It took a hundred words (on a first draft) to establish the general timeframe for the most casual of reader. After that, the rest of the battle focused on the protagonist leading his small troop of men as they fired down a hill upon the advancing enemy.
The protagonist’s troop is the left most unit. If they are overrun, the rest of the army can be outflanked and defeated. They need to hold on and if by some miracle they defeat the unit before them (who says it can’t happen?), they can turn the enemy’s flank. From a large-scale overview that establishes basic, grounding facts to small scale, personal, single encounter fighting. The characters get characterized and the situation shown in detail. The number of moving parts shrinks to a fraction while the impact of the small battle can be amplified by its effect on thousands of soldiers.
Why are these two peoples fighting? I’ve a reason, but multigenerational, world-scale geopolitical conflicts have little value to the soldier fighting on the ground, nor the reader on the first page.