Starting Off Strong: Tips on Beginning Your Story in the Right Place
Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of assisting with the first stage judging process for several RWA contests. Essentially, that entails performing an in-depth beta read on an entrant’s first chapter (or two or three, depending on the contest rules). The judges complete in-line comments, use a score sheet to rank the manuscript, and provide a final write-up with general feedback and constructive criticism to help the writer better their work.
Why am I telling you this now, you ask? Simple. Because, by judging so many different versions of writers’ best attempts at beginning a story, it's solidified in my mind the importance of those first few pages. We’ve all heard the adage that your first five pages can make or break you, which I have always agreed with to some extent, but my understanding had always been along the lines of, “Make sure your writing sparkles and shines at the beginning so agents/editors/readers get hooked by your brilliance and keep reading.”
I mean, duh. That’s also important, but I was missing the “big picture” boat with that thought process. Hardcore. And, after reading so many contest entries, it’s come to my attention that quite a few of my fellow writers might be in the same state of blissful confusion I was in.
So, what exactly is the “right place,” and how do you know if you’ve started there or not? Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy, algorithmic answer to that question. But there are some things you can look for—either before you write, if you’re a planner, or after, if you’re a pantser—to determine if the introduction to your little book baby is doing the job it’s intended to do.
These are just a few of my personal pet peeves and things I've learned along the way from beta readers, CPs, and editors. Again, there are no hard and fast rules, so take what I'm about to say with a grain of salt.
Don't start your story with any of these overused and tiring clichés
False Action Start
Having the character enmeshed in dreamworld theatrics then torn back to wakefulness in a tangle of sweaty blankets and exaggerated, out of breath thoughts that play along the lines of, "Holy crow, sure glad that was just a dream and totally isn't foreshadowing future events or anything sinister like that."
All that exciting action the reader just experienced? None of it’s real. They don’t care what your character dreamt about last night, they care about what’s about to happen now that’s going to totally change this character’s life. Aka, ya know, give them a story to read.
Wake Up Call
Just waking up, in general—most especially if the character is snapping out of a dream, even if you don’t show the dream. You basically want to avoid any kind of beginning that highlights your character’s first few moments of the day, especially if your first sentence has your character opening their eyes.
This is where your character laments their flaws in a self-deprecating voice or describes their rather impressively good looks in a begrudging, yet undeniably egotistical manner all while staring idly into a convenient mirror.
Start the story where the story starts. Period. Smack dab in the dang middle of it.
So many writers are tempted to begin their story with their character reflecting on life. We start out inside their head, listening to them gripe about their various problems and emotional turmoil as a setup for what is to come. DO NOT DO THIS. A good rule of thumb is to try and never leave your characters alone to ruminate. It will save you from yourself in more ways than one. Like, for example, helping to decrease info dumps and lengthy, unnecessary exposition.
Readers don’t want to start off a read being inundated with backstory, elucidations on things they’ve yet to even care about, or flowery descriptions of the scenery. That includes the weather. All of this can be gracefully and organically introduced through well-placed snippets of narrative and dialogue. It’s the difference between using a salt shaker to sprinkle just the right amount of flavor additive to your meal vs. screwing off the lid and dumping the whole dang thing in a big ol’ mountain of heck-to-the-no all over your food. Kinda ruins things, am I right? Less is more and leaving your reader curious will only entice them to read further and gain the answers they seek.
The best way to avoid all of that? Drop your characters into the thick of the action, whatever that action may be. Your inciting incident will differ depending on genre and plot, but whatever it is, it’s gotta unfold by no later than page five (as a widely accepted rule). At the very least, you want to create a sense of pending conflict (and, no, it doesn’t have to be the major, central conflict, just some conflict. There has to be something to hook the reader and make them want more!)
Get those love interests on page together asap!
I’m a romance writer, so I’m throwing in a little romance genre specific tidbit. If you don’t write romance, feel free to skip to the next point. If you do? Here me now: Get those love interests on page together ASAP!
In romance, the primary goal is centered around the act of falling in love and combating whatever challenges you, as the creator, have instilled to make that difficult for your characters to achieve. Therefore, you really need your romance leads on the same page—with either a joint purpose or opposing goals—within the first three to five pages.
On that note, make sure your main characters have goals other than the romance itself, and that those goals get introduced fairly quickly.
have a punchy first line that draws the reader in without compromising voice or story
I’ve read a manuscript or two where it’s obvious the writer spent an inordinate amount of time on that first sentence. It’s a thing of beauty, but a glaring eyesore when compared to the words that follow. Hook us with that first sentence, but don’t promise more than you can deliver or set yourself up to fall short.
Those first few pages of your manuscript are exceedingly valuable real estate. They’re the first words your reader will take in and can often be the deciding factor as to whether they’ll continue or toss your book baby into the DNF (Did Not Finish) pile.
Not only do you have to snare the reader and intrigue them enough to keep reading, but you also must establish voice, character, and setting. This is a hefty undertaking, and not one to be approached lightly. Not a single word of your first five pages should be wasted on fluff.
However, not to fear, my lovelies. Nary a writer out there has ever written the perfect story on the first draft. We all start in the wrong place more often than not. The important thing is opening yourself to that realization and, once the story is solidified as a full draft, taking a step back to consider whether that kick-butt opening you wrote truly fits with the story you told. Sadly, painfully, it often does not. You might realize the real conflict doesn’t get revved up until your current chapter three—or possibly even later. Which means all those before it are just really detailed backstory and ain’t nobody got time for that, am I right? 🤣
The most important thing to remember is… first drafts are first drafts for a reason. Don’t kill yourself over trying to envision the perfect opening. Just get the skeleton of your story onto the page and once that first draft is done, you can get a true picture of the story you’ve written. That’s when you can start making the hard decisions, like exactly where the story should begin.
Until next time,