The fact is, while there is no absolute rule, a story generally should begin with:
- the main conflict, or some event that is a direct tributary of the main conflict
- the main character
I put the main conflict first because the main conflict is what drives the story forward, and sometimes the main conflict does not start in the same place that the main character does. Often in works where a murder mystery occurs and where the antagonist is mysterious, the book will start with a segment from the antagonist's point of view. This establishes the stakes, i.e. why exactly it is that a reader should care about what the main character is going to try to accomplish. Thus, when we get to the point where we're seeing the main character - likely doing something far more innocuous - we already get a sense of danger, anticipation, and most importantly, curiosity about what happens next. When, as in Janice Hardy's The Shifter, the character has a secret and her safety depends on nobody finding out about it, it makes perfect sense for the story to begin with a scene that results in this secret being discovered. That's what I would call a tributary scene, where the scene has its own natural stakes and drive, but delivers us into a place where the main conflict has clearly begun. For my current work in progress, the opening scene is one that shows the main character in a situation where it is important for him to pay attention to how he and his reputation are perceived by others, and then shows him being driven step by step off his comfortable ordinary concerns into a place of extreme danger, not because of the antagonist, but because of a contagious disease and the fear that the disease causes in people around him. The disease then becomes a driver that leads to a second major change, the death of the Eminence, that propels the story toward its conclusion.
I'll return in a second to the issue of "being driven step by step off his comfortable ordinary concerns," but before I do that I want to address the question of backstory.
I often feel like choosing an opening scene for a story is like trying to create a see-saw. You have a big piece of story (it might even be your protagonist's whole life!) and you have to balance it on that opening scene. The part that chronologically precedes the opening scene is the backstory; the part that follows is the story. My rule of thumb is this:
Any piece of backstory that contributes directly to the identity of the protagonist, his/her culture, his/her self-awareness, and his/her basis for decision making can be portrayed indirectly through the protagonist's actions, and thus need not be included in the main story.
You may have noticed that I've arrived at "the main character" here.
Point of view is my ultimate ally in this. I think about it in the following terms: we judge our experiences and choose our actions on the basis of our personality and experience; thus, aspects of personality and experience can be included at points where our protagonist judges events, and chooses to act.
Here's an example from For Love, For Power of me doing the backstory thing with character judgment. Tagret (my main character) is going to a concert in the ballroom and one of his friends tells him that a new Cabinet member will be announced at the event, and that it might be Tagret's father. Here's how Tagret responds:
"It wouldn't matter," Tagret said. "My father wouldn't risk coming all the way back across the continent just for a Cabinet seat. He's too happy ruling Selimna where nobody can reach him." No Father meant none of Father's nasty surprises, and it would be preferable to keep him there, except that his last and worst surprise had been taking Mother with him.
The fact that Tagret's parents have been gone in a place so far that they can't come back to visit, that he hates his father and loves his mother, and that his father is important enough to consider a Cabinet seat not worth his while - all of these are important pieces of information for understanding the story as it continues. They are relevant here not because Tagret stops out of his ordinary concerns to muse on them, but because he's using them as a basis for his evaluation of the ongoing talk, and his response.
The fact is that an opening scene is strongest when it's a point of convergence. It shows conflict, it shows character, and it shows world (you didn't think I'd forget world, did you?) all at once in an active and engaged way. At the beginning of the story, a reader needs to be grounded in all three.
Grounding is absolutely critical in an opening scene. This is the word I give to basic reader orientation. The reader needs to be oriented - in some way - to the who, what, and where of the story. These elements can be presented in different sorts of balance, as when our protagonist is feeling disoriented and not knowing where he/she is, but they are very important. Imagine the main character as a runner, and you're about to be tied to that runner with a rope so you can follow along at (possibly breakneck) speed for the entire story. If you are going to be able to do this, you have to have your feet on the ground. Otherwise the runner will end up dragging you, spinning and yelling, until you manage to untie yourself and get away.
This is why starting in the middle of extreme action is not a good idea. Everett Maroon had a good post on this issue, here. In your opening scene, your main character should be doing something that requires him/her to indicate to readers who he/she is and what his/her normal concerns are. Until "normal" is established, the abnormal will have no meaning. Even if your character is disoriented, he/she can still try to make sense of what is going on around him/her in terms of what would be normal under ordinary circumstances.
Similarly, starting with simple introspection or gazing out at views is not a good idea either. It's not just that you've omitted the conflict. It's also that you've shackled yourself in terms of backstory and world. It's not only that people don't sit down and contemplate the basic normal conditions of their lives for no reason. It's that backstory and world belong in the background, and if there is nothing going on, they will necessarily take the front seat. By starting with your main character in a situation of conflict that leads directly to the main conflict of the story, you do several things:
- You give your main character an opportunity to introduce him/herself through action and judgment
- You give your main character the opportunity to introduce his/her world through action and judgment
- You orient readers and establish where the story will be going next
- You place the drive (the hook!) of the story front and center so readers can catch hold
- in what context could the main character best demonstrate his/her core motivations, possibly through indirect reference to backstory?
- in what location the main character could best portray the conditions of his/her world that have the greatest bearing on the story as it goes forward?
- in what situation would the significance of the main conflict to this character become most evident?
Dive in and go for it. These are just a few things for you to think about as you prepare to do so.