Beginnings are tricky in almost every medium — novels, movies, comics, videogames, you name it. You’re often dealing with a world different from our own, sometimes in huge ways, and sometimes in small, subtle ones. You need to convey the salient differences smoothly, so they’re absorbed but not necessarily noticed.
I’ve noticed two main styles of opening which I’m calling “Zoom In” and “Zoom Out.”
Give your audience the big picture first. In movies, you start with an aerial view of a world, a neighborhood, a street and zoom the camera in, closer and closer, until we see the one person or item or event we’re intended to focus on.
Starting with the big picture sets the scene. The audience gets a quick snapshot of time period, location, time of day, even mood. A decrepit Victorian house with black smoke curling out of an ancient chimney paints a very distinctive picture. A sleek silver spaceship hovering over an “Alien Extradition Center” paints quite another.
In novels, this Zoom In technique often involves a prologue that sets up the world, or a quote from a fictional history book about the time period, or a general description of the setting. You can describe the house where your hero lives, or her jail cell, or the hospital where she conducts illegal body modifications. Eventually you’ll get to the protagonist or the inciting incident, but first, you set the scene.
The Zoom In technique starts big-picture and moves towards a point of focus.
As you might suspect, Zooming Out works in the other direction. You start small, usually with a physical detail or situation the audience can readily grasp without greater knowledge of the world. A single drop of sweat sliding down a woman’s face as she hides in an alcove, a man’s morning coffee ritual, a line of dialogue between two co-workers in a meat-packing plant.
After this anchor is offered to the audience, you can Zoom Out, revealing more and more of the world. Even if the world is surprising, you’ve given the audience an anchor. They may not understand why the aliens overlords are running a meat-packing plant, but they understand that the two guys working there have accidentally forgotten each other’s birthdays.
The Zoom Out technique starts at a single point of focus and widens its lens to encompass more and more the world as the story progresses.
(I would also put Dialogue Openings in this second category: stories that begin with a character’s words, but no visual setting. Things like voice overs, diary entries, or first-person narratives lacking details about the world.)
How Do You Open?
Although I think both of these methods are perfectly valid, I favor the Zoom Out technique for my own writing, especially in stories with complex worldbuilding. Some of my favorite writers naturally gravitate towards the Zoom In technique under similar circumstances.
Of course, this is just the paradigm I choose to think about story openings. What do you use, if you use anything at all? If you’re a reader, which do you prefer to read?