The beginning of a story is like its pitch.
I think that’s easy to prove. A pitch must engage a reader and make them curious about the story itself— a beginning must do much the same thing, except it gets more words and leads into the rest of the story. The pitch acquaints the reader with the type of story it is— a beginning does exactly the same, but in more depth. Really, a beginning is just a beefed-up pitch. That’s why it’s so important, and so difficult.
A pitch boils a story down into a couple words that are each loaded with meaning. Wizards at boarding school— each word there has a very specific meaning to generate the correct picture. Jane Austen with magic— again, each word is loaded with meaning (except the prepositions, of course). We all know Jane Austen’s style of writing, and we all have varying ideas of magic. We don’t need to know exactly what the magic is yet, but those four words are enough to conjure up the perfect image. Pitches like these use combinations of familiar words with specific connotations to create something new and interesting.
But notice, pitches never include the names of the characters, or the name of the magic, or specific syntax from the story. Harry defeats Voldemort at Hogwarts— if you didn’t know those terms already, that would mean nothing to you. It’s one way to pitch the story, but it doesn’t work unless you take some time to introduce each of those terms. (Note that this sort of pitch can be used for a sequel, because the syntax has already been established.) Because of these restrictions, pitches must only use terms the layman can understand— words that have very specific meanings, yet are still common to almost everyone’s vocabulary.
By now you might think pitches have diverged from beginnings, but they’re still quite similar. Pitches must only contain words familiar to the casual reader— beginnings, while they can explain ideas, must consist mostly of familiar concepts. The story begins in a place that any reader can quickly understand, then begins to draw the reader away from that, showing them why the story is unique. It’s most obvious in science fiction and fantasy novels, where parts of the world must be explained before the story can happen; but it’s also apparent in more realistic fiction, like mysteries, contemporaries, or thrillers.
Brandon Sanderson has several excellent examples of this. In Warbreaker, the story begins with a viewpoint character in a dungeon. While I have never been incarcerated, it’s common knowledge that prisons do exist in any society that has a government. Prisons, while not immediately relevant to my life, are still familiar enough to introduce the rest of the story. In Mistborn: The Final Empire, the prologue begins with a land owner looking over his property, and his slaves. Slavery is another concept which, while I don’t have personal experience with it, I can understand readily. Finally, in The Rithmatist, the story begins with someone being chased through the night by an unknown hunter. The fear of being hunted is primal, common to everyone. In each of these cases, Sanderson begins with a familiar image, then goes on to introduce the characters, plot, and magic system.
And since I promised, here’s another example, an example of historical fiction: The Book Thief. It begins rather elegantly, with a small discussion of colors. The narrator, in fact, seems obsessed with colors— he says they help him stay sane. Colors, obsession, sanity— these are very common things, things we see or think about or experience every day, in large or small amounts. These concepts are very common to us, common to our society— and that, I think, is the essence of a beginning.
A beginning isn’t really meant to introduce the story, as much as lead the reader into another world. The beginning is a guide to welcome the reader into the story. It shakes the reader’s hand, offers them a drink, and encourages them to look around— yes, this world is very similar to the one you just left. But look there! There are plenty of new things for you to discover, so keep reading.
This is the essence of a beginning: yes, this is a different world, a different person, a different situation, but it’s almost the same as the world, person, and situation you experience normally. Then, once the assurances are over, the beginning shoves the reader into the capable hands of the rest of the story.
Excuse my blatant metaphor. The point is this: a beginning must include emotions, surroundings, and situations common to human society before it can lead the reader into anything more abstract, like magic or Nazi Germany or something else. The beginning is a gentle transition from everyday life into an extraordinary adventure.
Does this mean pretend that your magic doesn’t exist, or pretend that your main character doesn’t have two heads, or pretend that she isn’t embroiled in a plot to murder the new dictator-for-life? Nope. Just introduce it more slowly than that. Choose a situation— choose it carefully— where those concepts aren’t at the fore. The main character is in jail— we don’t need to know if he can do magic, or if he’s got an ulterior motive. Jail is the familiar thing, so begin with that, then add the oddities one by one until the reader is fully introduced. It’s difficult, but it can be done.
Firefly begins with a war, then adds in laser weapons, spacecraft, and finally smuggling in space with futuristic technology. Every episode of Fringe begins with a normal person doing normal things in a normal environment— and then they die in a horrible, science-fiction way. The Lightning Thief begins with a class trip and a kid who doesn’t want to be there, until his algebra teacher grows wings and tries to kill him. The beginning— no matter what kind of story— is something familiar, which leads into something strange.
Try it. Look at what you’re writing— does it begin with familiarity? If not, it should be easy to include. What about books you’ve read recently, or your favorite stories? Can you see this technique at work? What’s your favorite beginning?