I was asked a question yesterday by someone wanting to write a novel. Where do I start?
For the sake of keeping this post short, let's not go into details on how your first step should be research, outlines, character sketches, synopses, plus creating subplots, internal conflict, and the entire details of the setting. Let's assume the question asker meant "what should my first scene be?"
A lot of resources will tell you to start where your story gets exciting. This website suggests starting with your hero in immediate danger. Or the "the discovery of the body, not the detective commuting to work or reading the morning newspaper."
This website gives the worst advice of all. "Unveil the back story to your novel by using flashbacks and narrative reminiscences in the first chapter."
But here's one that gets it right. "The first chapter should begin just before a pivotal event in your protagonist’s life."
"Begin just before" is the key phrase there. It's my opinion that you have to set up the normal life of the protagonist first, before you set things in motion. It's the only way the reader can understand why the pivotal event is so pivotal. Usually the normal life is unhappy in some way. After all, you can't have a happy ending without an unhappy beginning.
Let's jump into a few examples.
Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone started with Harry living under the stairs at his aunt and uncle's house. He was entirely miserable, having to endure a trip to the zoo to celebrate his cousin's birthday. Then the pivotal event happened...an owl showed up with an invitation to a school.
If we were going to take the advice of the first website, Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone would've started with the owl. We would've learned about Harry's home life through backstory and flashbacks. The problem with that is you have to pause the linear story to go back and give information. It would read like--Harry gets the invitation from the owl. It's really exciting for him because his life was so miserable. For example, there was this one time at the zoo...
It doesn't work as well. You have to stop all forward motion with the owl and put the reader's curiosity on hold. You also have the added problem of Show vs Tell working correctly. A good writer will SHOW Harry miserable, rather than saying he was.
Another example is the movie Speed. It doesn't start with everyone on the bus learning there is a bomb aboard. It starts with us learning that Annie lost her license, and with Jack responding to a threat in an elevator, plus how he interacts with his partner. So later when his partner dies, we understand the magnitude of his loss. We also understand why the bomb on the bus is personal for Jack.
Lord of the Rings starts in a happy, utopia called the shire. The unhappiness surrounding it is that Bilbo is losing his mind.
A Christmas Carol doesn't start with Scrooge being warned he'll be visited by ghosts. It starts with him at work, hating Christmas, treating people badly, and all around not a nice person.
The Matrix starts with Neo as a boring, unhappy computer programmer.
You'll always find exceptions to the rule. There are plenty of stories that begin with a man running for his life through an alley, or a woman being murdered. Watchmen started with a murder. Desperate Housewives started with a suicide. Pretty much every crime show on television starts with a body. But then again, we see those characters every week, and it isn't until the 4th or 5th episode do we want to learn more about their regular lives.
My advice is to know the genre you are writing in. Go to the library and get several of the most popular books currently out. Where do they start? Murder Mystery might start with a body. Historical fiction might start with a protagonist on a stroll through Victorian England. Fantasy most likely starts with a farm boy or bar maid.
For crap's sake don't copy these stories. All I'm saying is know if the genre typically starts with the pivotal moment, or right before. Does the farm boy perform his miserable chores for a drunkard father before the evil sorceror shows up?