Although many stories begin with interesting beginnings, it seems quite easy for a storyteller to get caught up in the “and then” action that propels the hero into the battle that faces him and the victory (we hope) that he enjoys at the end of the action.
I want to talk about the concept of setting up your story, building a firm foundation and then letting everything that follows stem from the first part of the story.
I owe this this attention and focus on the story’s beginning to Brian McDonald, who describes this phase as the story’s Act 1. From this foundation of the story, all things must come. They can’t be thrown in halfway into the story in order to rescue our hero because we, as the writer, hadn’t prepared for a solution.
What this means is, Indiana Jones has to have already established early in Raiders of the Lost Ark that he uses his whip for all sorts of things. If he pulled out the weapon/tool thirty minutes into the movie and it was the first time we’d seen it, we wouldn’t believe Indiana knew how to wield it.
In the film October Sky, we need to immediately see the father’s resistance to his son’s dream of building rockets and working at NASA in order to fully feel the son’s joy at the end of the film when his father finally supports his son’s dream.
In It’s a Wonderful Life when our hero decides to stay in his small town and take over the family business, we wouldn’t know that this meant something huge unless we knew about his dreams to travel the world that he now has sacrificed.
Everything has to have a good foundation that occurs in the story’s beginning. This doesn’t mean an info dump in the first twenty pages, but it does mean that the architecture must be carefully laid so that things flow naturally from one another and are logical rather an episodic.
If a character makes an impulsive decision near the story’s climax, I want to have a reason that was established early on for why the character might act impulsively. Is it because he had a father who never accepted impulsive behavior and this was an act of rebellion? Was it because he was afraid of being judged for hesitating too long?
Or when a character decides to risk her life for the man she loves, I want it established early on that she is idealistic. Or, perhaps I might even make her a person who has hardened herself against idealism, in order to protect an old wound, but gradually she sheds this shell until she is ready again to risk everything for what she knows is good.
Think about the beginning of your story. It sets the stage for everything else.
What beginning are you writing? Are you stocking it with lots of fuel to burn through the rest of your story and give your character things to grow from and grow into?