This post is about beginnings, a sort of follow up to my post about starting stories in the middle of the action. Whether you jump directly into the central conflict or not, you still need to create drama for the reader. This means that you have to show things in action.
Put things into motion and keep them in motion. This does not mean that your characters must be running from aliens or leaping volcanoes constantly. It means that the story must move forward, that there must be momentum towards a fixed point (the climax). It means that your characters must be doing things.
What are your characters doing, then? Simply put: they are making decisions and then acting upon them, and then dealing with the consequences of those actions. Your characters want something, and your story is the movement through time of your characters toward that goal, whether they achieve it or not. If your characters don't want anything, then they are not dramatic characters and you should write a different story where people have desires. But I digress.
Put things into motion and keep them in motion. How does the reader know who your characters are? By watching them act. So show them acting. In Homer's Iliad, we know that Achilles is broody and prideful. Do we find this out by reading pages of Achilles brooding, alone in his tent? No; we find this out when he argues publically with Agamemnon or refuses Odysseus' plea to join the battle (both of which are dramatic scenes filled with conflict: a warrior versus his king, and a man versus his friends). In The Lord of the Rings, we don't read pages of Frodo's inner struggle against the evil influence of the One Ring; we see Frodo as he stops heeding Sam and places his trust in Gollum instead, eventually abandoning Sam in Mordor after verbally abusing him. These two examples are both fairly subtle and you might not consider them action at first, but they are: the characters are shown making decisions and acting upon those decisions.
To tie the title of this post into my ramblings, I'll say that in the beginning of a story, you need to let the reader know what the central conflict is, what the story is about: where the characters are going. And you need to show that through action. "Okay, Scott," you say. "We know that. Can you go beyond the basics of 'show don't tell?'" Well, maybe.
Conflict is character. Conflict, for our purposes, means people (or, yes, elves if you must) attempting to achieve specific goals and having to struggle for those achievements. In order for the reader to care about the outcome of this conflict, the reader has to care about the characters. In order to care about the characters, the reader has to know the characters. In order to know the characters, the reader has to see the characters in action. Yes, you can go on for sixty pages about your protagonist's inner thoughts and tell us the whole sad story of his estrangement from his father and his subsequent hatred of all men of a certain age and how that might effect his view of himself as your protagonist becomes the same age as his father when he was disinherited. You might even write it in gorgeous, moving prose. I'd read that. But if that isn't your story--if it's your back-story--you can get the same point across (that your protagonist has "issues" with men of his father's generation) by writing a dramatic scene where your protagonist is cruel or indifferent to an older man. Drama is vivid, memorable and engaging. And, frankly, makes the point better and faster than ruminations.
Can't I stop and think ever? Certainly. Please do. I like thoughtful books, but that's not the way to begin one. Before you have your characters consider the state of their lives, show us your characters within their lives, in action. Even a book like "Pride and Prejudice," which is alleged to be pretty tame and undramatic, begins with 1) a statement of theme (a man with money needs a wife), and 2) the event which kicks off the action of the book (the mansion up the road has been rented by a man with money; we simply must meet him!). That's not as dramatic as jumping a volcano or battling Poseidon, but it's still a dramatized scene that immediately introduces us to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and immediately introduces conflict. Which is exactly what we want as readers, and one reason why Austen's book is still in print after all these years.
This post is a bit of a hash, stucturally. It all seemed brilliant on the way to the office, but it might be less focused than I might like. I'll try to clarify things later.