One of the most vital parts of a story, and one that is often botched by authors for reasons ranging from lack of skill to rushing to lack of adequate editing is the very first part. The Exposition.
The exposition is the hook of a story. This is the beginning portion of a book that is supposed to allow the reader to become invested in the story. A solid exposition will pull in a reader who must know more about what will happen. The exposition is the Who, Where, When and What. The Why and the How come later.
A good exposition should introduce the protagonist, antagonist and the primary characters who will act upon the story. This doesn't have to be done as a big, simplistic meet and greet and the antagonists name doesn't even have to be mentioned. But he and any characters who will be central to the plot must be present. The shadow of their presence, their power, their affect, must be present. This can be through foreshadowing, through a revelation of actions or even a hint of their involvement even if they are never identified for the reader.
Where and When
Where does this story take place? Even if your settings will change or the main characters will be transported to another place and time, there must be the over-arching image of where and when this story is going to take place. Some time travel books include a prequel that occurs in the time the character is going to or hint at the future time by something the character is interested in, an object he or she handles or sees or by the discussion of an important event or person from that time period.
The what is critical. We don’t need to know what and how, but your reader should have a vague notion of what the basic conflict is of your story by the time the move from the exposition to the rising action portion of the story. The writer doesn’t even have to tell the reader the truth. Misdirection can lead the reader down one path they think the writer is following only to have the true path revealed later. But the hints of the truth must be there.
Remember the Sixth Sense? Ninety-nine percent of people watched that movie with no idea what the real “problem” was that Bruce Willis’ character had to solve. Yet when this was revealed, we could all look back and go, “Duh!” There was this hint, that hint, and several more along the way. We were surprised and even blindsided. That’s good, the truth was there all the time and the writer used misdirection to fool us. However, he didn’t pull the real “problem” out of his backside at the end.
As I said, I’m not an expert and the truth about rules of writing is that the best and brightest among us break them…or seem to break them all the time. But as I tell my students, you can’t break the rules until you fully understand what they are and why they are there. Then you will understand the difference between breaking them and twisting them in a way that delights and engages your reader.