A popular post from January 2008
by Annette Lyon
Where should you start your story?
That's the magic question so many writers wrestle with. I'm one of them; I usually rewrite my first chapter a dozen times before it's right, and often it'll end up as a different scene altogether, starting at a different moment in the story.
Regardless of how difficult the beginning is to spot and capture in your writing, doing so is critical. A reader (or, more importantly, an agent or editor) won't give you the benefit of the doubt and keep reading to page 63 where it really gets good.
You must hook the reader immediately and give them a solid reason to keep going. You have to earn the reader going on to the second sentence, the next paragraph, the next page.
In my editing experience, the most common mistake with beginnings is that the writer tries to tell too much of the back story too soon, as if we just have to know right away what got John to this point in his life.
When this happens, the reader doesn't get to the actual story without wading through the history, perhaps in flashbacks or large sections of "info dump." (Big hint here: if you're beginning your story with a flashback, you're starting in the wrong place.)
Your beginning should open at a time of change for the main character. By the end of the first chapter, their life has to be turned upside down.
And most importantly, something must be happening. Never, ever, have your first chapter filled with a character sitting on a mountaintop (or in the car, or by the beach, or in bed) recalling past events or what they need to do about them.
Remember "show don't tell"? Do it here. Show your character in a difficult situation. Show your character reacting to it, struggling to decide what to do next.
When past information is critical to include, drop a tidbit here and there, just enough to keep the reader informed while the story keeps moving forward. Avoid writing more than a couple of sentences of back story at any point; when you do that, you stall the story, no matter how fascinating the history is. Let us discover the past a piece at a time.
The majority of manuscripts I see with the problem of opening overload eventually find their beginnings. I can often spot it two or three (or more) pages into the piece. Sometimes I'll star that spot and say, "Start here. This is the real beginning."
What about everything before it? Hit the delete button. Really. It's all what David Fryxell from Writer's Digest calls "throat clearing," where you're just warming up and finally you reach the point you've been trying to make all along.
Reread your work with an eye out for any "throat clearing." You might just find you've already written a brilliant opening . . . on page 4.