No story begins until something happens. I call this the story trigger. Others use other names, but all will agree that until the trigger is pulled, the story cannot begin. In a way, that may be like saying water is powerfully wet stuff, but plenty of would-be storytellers/writers (and some professionals who should know better) don’t seem to get it.
Beware the buildup: Some writers want to write a prologue and give oodles of background before getting to the trigger. In a real sense, they see the story trigger as a kind of mini-climax rather than a beginning point. Not a good idea. 20 pages of murderer motivation before the murder or 20 pages of victim life before getting killed is nonsense. Either the information is that fascinating so that it should be the story, and the murder is in fact the story climax, OR it has no business getting in the way. There is a reason why a murder mystery begins something like this:
“Mrs. Harwich followed the trail of blood across the rug to where she found the body of Mister Harwich crumpled behind the desk, dead eyes staring up at her, and she screamed.”
The same idea holds true for any story, whatever genre, literary or otherwise. Start with the trigger.
I call it a trigger because it is not necessarily a conflict as it is often called, for example:
“Jim Doonun sat in the outhouse scratching his nose, not thinking anything in particular which was typical for the man, when he had an idea. The thought just occurred to him out of nowhere. He turned it over and under and inside-out, and then he smiled. In that moment, Jim Doonun knew the meaning of life, the reason for life, the universe and everything, and he couldn’t wait to tell somebody.”
Remember: The primary purpose in telling a story is to get the audience to pay attention (the reader to keep reading) right to the very end.
A story trigger is often the revelation of conflict, but it can also simply raise questions in a reader’s mind, or even, and perhaps better, elicit sympathy for the main character.
Cinderella begins (after “Once upon a time” which is more background than needed) there was a good little girl whose mother died. BINGO: “good girl,” “mother died.” Immediate sympathy.
A few years later, her father remarried and thought it a good arrangement because the woman had two daughters about the same age as his own. Then he died. Double BINGO. What is going to happen next? In three short sentences we have everything needed, empathy for the main character, events that lead to a questionable situation and the curiosity to see how it is all going to work out.
The point: Every story needs a trigger and should begin with the trigger: Something has to happen, some event, some sudden conflict, something unexpected, a situation revealed, something that shakes the character and takes them out of their comfort zone. The story is about how people deal with it. That is what story, any story is all about: people dealing with it until they find a new comfort zone or until they die (or until they finish the first leg of a journey if you are aiming at sequels).