As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I'm beginning the process of building a Periodic Table of Storytelling Elements, like what Mr. James Harris has constructed. The big categories will be "What," "Who," "Where," and "Why."
The first Element in the "What" categories is (perhaps obviously) "Beginning."
What story can you have without a beginning? None, of course.
But the beginning of your story and where the reader starts reading aren't always the same thing, which is why I included the other part of this Element, the name that I almost gave it instead: the Introduction.
So, what's the difference between the introduction and the place where the story actually starts?
When an author describes the main character as he's lying in bed, telling us that he's not an ordinary boy, that he's on summer holiday with his family, and that he used to live in the cupboard under the stairs, is that the beginning of the action, or an introduction to the world and characters?
The first is an introduction, which describes what life is like before things change and the adventure begins. But because the introduction can be left out without changing the story, it's not the "beginning" in the sense that the story starts right there.
Take something like Sleeping Beauty, for example. The story starts with an evil fairy laying a curse on the princess. There is little or no introduction into who the king and queen are, where the fairy came from, or why the princess is so special that she has not one but four fairies at her christening. You could add that information, but it wouldn't change the story.
So, if the introduction isn't a necessary part of the story - if you can leave it off and it doesn't change anything - why include it at all? Simply put; when the audience is introduced to the characters and their world before the inciting incident (that is, before the adventure starts) then the audience has the opportunity to feel the impact of the change that sends your protagonist off into the Unknown.
In some cases, whether or not an Introduction is included is the difference between investment in the characters and action-packed instant gratification. That's not always true, but it's a decent rule of thumb when working with shorter stories. It's also good to keep in mind that there's no "wrong" way to start your story. Investment is awesome. Action is engaging. There's nothing "bad" about either option; how your story starts will affect what kind of story you're telling, and how your audience engages with those characters you're trying to talk about.
For a good example of lack of introduction done well, take a look at Shakespeare's Twelfth Night sometime. The inciting incident that kicks the story off (the shipwreck) takes place before the play even starts.
At the other end of that spectrum, a book like Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey spends the first several chapters setting up the world and the characters before the adventure begins.
I can't wait to see what kind of beginning you guys come up with.
If you have any suggestions, requests, or comments, feel free to let me know! I'm always tickled to hear back from my readers.