Beginning Your Story

Amy Tan

Lesson time 20:31 min

Amy believes the first pages of a story are the most important. Learn the key elements of a compelling beginning and how to grab your readers right from the start.

Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars

Topics include: Anchor Your Story • Consider the Implications of Your Choices • Create a Story Outline • Case Study: Successful Beginnings •


[GENTLE MUSIC] - I still struggle with beginnings. I think everybody does. You feel like it is going to determine everything, and so you have to choose the right beginning. I've learned over the course of writing a lot of books that oftentimes, the beginnings you put down are not the beginnings that are going to stay. As you develop the story, and especially as you move toward the end, you realize that the beginning is not the beginning. The beginning probably happens in the next chapter, or the beginning is reflected by what happens at the end. What you should think about that will be helpful to your story later is try to anchor the story in a place, in a time with the character in that first scene and possibly with a sense of imbalance. When you have imbalance, when you have conflict, when you have uncertainty, the story has to go somewhere. You have to solve what that uncertainty is. When you have a character that has something puzzling happening, that is the entrée to a story. And you want to find out why that person's situation leads to something else. So I would say, and this is what I do, take yourself someplace. Put yourself-- and when you're in that setting, think about the season, something really basic like the season, snow, fall, sweating heat. Feel it. Be there. Of course, you need to have a time period. Are you in the 18th century? Are you in the dystopian future? Are you in the here and now? That then will tell you what are the possible situations that you might come across. An arranged marriage, a tsunami coming, a wasteland. Those are the things that can ground your story, and that's what you want to do. But keep in mind, again, it may change. This is purely to get yourself started. But eventually, you will need those elements in your story. I think if you read really great novels, you'll find that those elements are in those stories pretty quickly. If not the first paragraph, the first page. [GENTLE MUSIC] In the beginning, you will probably have to decide what the characters look like, what their names are. Be careful of things that carry so much cultural content that is popular that you have already overlaid your story with assumptions the readers have. So for example, I would read-- I had to read, say, 200 stories once of beginning writers, most of them. I wanted to choose beginning writers for inclusion in the "Los Angeles Times" literary magazine. And when I started with a story that began with the names Britney, when Britney Spears was incredibly popular, the connotations of that name just flooded the page. And you know, I couldn't stop this imagery, you know, as this, you know, cute little blonde girl who was, you know, very much in popular culture and to being popular. And that may not have been the nature of the story that you wanted to tell. Or it could be a very unusual name like Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," Pecola. I'd never heard of that name before. But for thi...

About the Instructor

Amy Tan was 33 before she first explored her voice as a fiction author. A few years later, her debut novel, The Joy Luck Club, spent 40 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Now she’s showing you her approach to the challenges and joy of self-discovery through writing. Learn how to craft compelling beginnings and endings, find your voice, and embrace your emotional memory to bring powerful narratives to life.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

Amy Tan

The celebrated author shares her approach to voice, story, and the craft of bringing narratives to life from beginning to end.

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