Start story with event that upsets status quo

Often the opening of a story involves some incident that upsets the status quo. In doing so, the main character faces the challenge of restoring order in the world.

This incident is known as an “out-of-whack event,” which is “when the story concerns a character who stable life is knocked out of whack by an external event,” as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc., defines it.

Consider this example of a story opener that employs an out-of-whack event:

Peter Hanswurst sniffed indignantly. A gray circle of withered plants lay in the middle of his field, an otherwise perfect patch of green soybeans alternating with black dirt that ran into the horizon. The hot Midwestern sun beat down on him, and he wiped sweat from his forehead. Hanswurst figured the circle was no more six feet across, a miniscule fraction of the entire field, and one he decided that was small enough to eradicate.

In this story, farmer Peter Hanswurst finds his world out-of-whack: a strange circle of dead plants sits in the middle of his otherwise perfect field. He now will spend the story trying to rid the field of the circle – and face a number of obstacles in doing so.

Starting a story with an out-of-whack event is a time-honored tradition in Western storytelling. Indeed, Aristotle touted it.

Usually the out-of-whack event happens at the story’s beginning. Sometimes it even occurs before the story begins, as the tale starts with the main character already engaged in the struggle to get his life back in order. If the excerpt above started with Peter Hanswurst plowing under the dead plants in the gray circle, the out-of-whack event would have occurred before the story began.

If using an out-of-whack event, don’t wait too long to introduce the incident. If you do, you risk having the story move too slowly and missing out on a great opportunity for a narrative hook.