This decision could be the difference between readers turning the pages and shutting the cover:
Where in the timeline does the “once upon a time” fall?
Here’s a little guide to help you decide.
Beginning at the beginning
Take the Chronicles of Narnia as an example. Lewis first wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (LWW), in which a little girl finds her way into a magical land through a wardrobe.
We need a bit more background to give us our bearings. Where is the wardrobe? In a large, mysterious house. Why is the little girl in the house? She traveled there with her brothers and sister to escape theLondonair-raids during the war.
Oh, so the story really starts with “Hitler invaded Poland.” But if you’re going back that far, why not go back to the little girl’s birth, or even to God created the heavens and the earth?
Because it would take forever.
Choose a beginning somewhere in between. Lewis briefly summarizes the children’s reason for being at the house. Dialogue begins on page 2, and we step through the wardrobe by page 5.
The takeaway: start early enough to give your readers a bit of orientation, but don’t start so far back that you have to give whole paragraphs of background exposition.
Beginning at the middle
What’s that? Your story’s more complicated than that? There’s far more background to explain?
Well, LWW is more complicated than it sounds. Where did the magical land come from, and how does an old wardrobe grant access to it? But Lewis doesn’t explain this in this book, and he doesn’t have to. The mystery gets pushed back in the face of more pressing matters. Evil witch. Captive brother. Etc.
Review all the information you think your readers need. Cut out anything they don’t need right away and save it for later in the story. Readers can typically suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the wonder of the current story by itself—a wardrobe opening up to a snowy wood, a faun in a red scarf carrying an umbrella—without asking too many questions about How It All Got There. They will trust you to answer such things in time (hang a lantern on it if necessary).
Is there anything readers truly need to know right away? Work that in gradually, showing, not telling, like this.
Back to the stuff you set aside for later. Possibly a whole book’s worth of background information. You have two choices:
1. Work it into the current story at intervals (Louis Sachar does this brilliantly in Holes)
2. Write a prequel later—which is what Lewis did with The Magician’s Nephew.
In either sense, you’re starting in the middle of the story. The advantage: When you finally do explain How It All Got There, readers get double the amusement in putting all the pieces together—how the magical world came into being and how the wardrobe is connected to it—as if they’ve just solved a clever riddle. It’s an advantage you lose if you start with The Magician’s Nephew.
The takeaway: don’t let oodles of background force you to start too early. Work it in gradually, or save it for later.
Beginning at the end
There’s an episode of Firefly that opens with the ship’s captain sitting alone in the desert, naked.
“That went well,” he says to himself.
Cut to opening theme.
Meanwhile, we’re all dying to know how he got there.
You probably won’t really be starting at the end—just at the climax. At your hero’s lowest point. Show your readers just enough to make them go “huh?” then before they get confused enough to be frustrated, pause, rewind, and spend the rest of the book showing them how your hero got there.
The takeaway: if you start by showing your readers an intriguing glimpse of the future, you can create enough curiosity to propel them through the rest of the story.
What type of beginning makes you keep reading?