Figuring out how to open your story is difficult, because there might be any number of “right times” to begin your story. But in the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist I have avoided phrasing things in the negative, so rather than saying “don’t start at the wrong time,” I put it this way:
☐ The story begins in the right place.
This item is on most editor’s checklists because one of the most common errors we see is two or three chapters of prelude—sometimes more—before the story reaches an engaging starting point. As a freelance editor, I can tell you to delete these chapters to move that point up to the beginning. But if those chapters are present while you are seeking traditional publication or self-publishing, you may not hold the attention of the acquisitions editor or reader long enough to make the sale.
Ideally, you want to start far enough before the inciting incident to give us an idea of what the protagonist’s normal life is like before everything goes kerflooey.
Let’s say we’re telling a story about a young woman whose parents are killed in a tragic accident. The accident could be called the inciting incident, but really, from her viewpoint, the inciting incident is the moment she gets the news.
So we could set up an opening chapter in which she’s at work, going about her normal routine. We see that she’s good at her job, that she has a sense of humor, and maybe there’s even room, through a snarky comment by her best friend in the next cubicle, to hint at some conflict between the heroine and her brother.
Then she gets the phone call. Off we go.
Too many writers give ten times as much material, and it’s often unnecessary. Because we know all about our character’s lives, we could trace her history back to her first day of the job, or her time in college, or her youth when she butted heads with a stubborn older brother.
We could, but let’s not.
Starting too late
The opposite error happens when the writer avoids all prelude and begins with the protagonist right in the middle of some life-threatening emergency. This is usually ineffective because the reader hasn’t had time to get to know the character. It’s too soon for them to care.
Starting right when the inciting incident hits the fan can work if the circumstances give room for introducing the character in a sympathetic way. For example, if in the very first scene our heroine gets that call in the middle of a meeting, how do her co-workers respond? How does she take it? How she reacts in the crisis will reveal a lot about her character.
Starting immediately before the inciting incident is a best practice, like everything on this checklist. These items are advice. Not rules.
You could, if it suits the story, start a little bit after the inciting incident. This can work if the inciting incident happened somewhere else, to someone else, and the story is about her reaction to it. So in our story, although the inciting incident is the parent’s death, it could be effective to begin at the point where she arrives for the funeral. Her interactions with the other family members will reveal her character.
Readers need time to get to know the protagonist. We don’t want them to start skimming to find where the story starts, but we also don’t want them giving up because they don’t wish to be thrown into dangerous circumstances with a total stranger. But the right place to start a story will vary from one story to another. Look at your scenes and consider how the reader’s experience will change depending on which scene is the first they read.