Starting Off Your Story

Start your story off with a bang and a promise. The bang grabs your audience’s attention right away and the promise keeps their attention for the rest of your story.

The first thing you have to do in any story is grab the audience’s attention. You can do that with a mystery, such as “Raiders of the Lost Art” where we see the mysterious figure of Indiana Jones searching for treasure in a jungle. Such an opening immediately makes us wonder, “What’s happening?”

The beginning of “WALL-E” shows skyscrapers that are actually made of trash, and among the dusty ruins of garbage, we see a little robot scurrying around. Again, this mystery makes us wonder what’s happening.

After you grab your audience’s attention, you have give them a reason to stick around and that reason is your promise.

In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” we learn early in the story that Indiana Jones needs to find the Ark of the Covenant, so no matter what happens, we can’t leave until we find out if he gets it or not.

In “WALL-E,” WALL-E wants to find love, so we can’t leave the story until we find out if he gets it or not.

This implied promise is what your story must answer in the end.

One of my favorite ways to study story structure is to focus on children’s stories because they’re shorter and easier to study compared to a novel or full-length movie. In the book “Crafting Stories for Children” by Nancy Lamb, the author suggests three ways to create an implied promise.

First, let us know what the hero wants. In “The King’s Speech,” the king simply wants to learn to speak clearly in public without embarrassing himself. Sounds simple, but his stuttering is his greatest obstacle. Once we know what the hero wants, we’ll stick around until we find out if he gets it or not.

Second, put your hero in a moral conflict right away. In “The Godfather,” Al Pacino initially is more of an outsider to the family’s organized crime business. However when the Godfather dies, he’s stuck in a moral dilemma. Does he take over the role of the Godfather or does he walk away? We want to know what his decision will be until the end finally answers this for us.

Third, show us the hero in conflict right away. Action and disaster movies do this best such as “The Poseidon Adventure” where we know the heroes are going to have to escape from an upside-down sinking ocean liner or in “Battle: Los Angeles” where we know soldiers are going to have to fight and survive against an alien assault.

  1. State what the hero wants
  2. Put the hero in a moral dilemma
  3. Put the hero in a physical conflict

If you use one or more of these ideas right from the start, your audience will want ot know how it all turns out, and that’s how you keep your audience waiting until the end.

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