Wednesday, November 9, 2016

How NOT to Start a Story

A popular post from October 2008

by Annette Lyon

I'm terrible at writing opening chapters. Inevitably, I rewrite them a dozen times, and quite often, something else entirely ends up as the first chapter. Sometimes I back up further and begin earlier, and sometimes I start later. Regardless, my "first chapter" curse has become a running joke with my critique group.

But since I have my sixth book coming out in a few months, I figure I've managed to pull off a decent opening chapter more than once . . . with work. And I've learned a few things a long the way.

The biggest mistake writers make in their opening chapters is trying to include too much back story too soon. This includes throwing in numerous flashbacks.

Hint: If your book opens with your main character waking up, sitting in a bath, looking out the window, taking a shower, brushing teeth, driving to work, or otherwise not doing much of anything but thinking, or if your first chapter includes a flashback, you're starting in the wrong place.

These openings are B-O-R-I-N-G. Why? Because you're beginning with massive info dump and back story. That's not a story. That's a summary of events.

Do we need to know your character's background? Sure. (Although to "get" the story we probably need less of it than you think we do.)

And chapter one isn't the place for it. Throw us into the middle of the action, where something is happening, something is changing in the hero's life, and we see them reacting to it.

Later on, you can work in some back story, but even then, it can generally be woven in using brief snippets here and there so you never have a section where the story stops cold and the reader sits back for a giant history lesson (or, more likely, puts the book aside).

As an example, think back to Raiders of the Lost Ark and its opening scene.

Do we know that Indiana is an archeology professor when the huge boulder is chasing him, when the arrows fly, when the booby traps are set off? No. We know essentially nothing about this guy beyond the fact that he's a treasure hunter on a potentially deadly adventure.

That opening scene is engaging. Even though we didn't know much about this guy, we did see his personality through his words and actions (tackling problems with wits like using the bag of sand to get the idol, rescuing his hat even when a wall is coming down, a snake phobia on a man who, we thought, feared nothing).

Through it all, the audience is wrapped up in each frame, despite the fact that most of them probably didn't even catch Indie's name in that first scene.

Once the audience is hooked like that, then the story slows down a bit. We see Indie teaching a class and then scholarly men discussing ancient artifacts and history, trying to get him to start a new adventure.

Yes, the pace has slowed down a bit, but note that the story still moving forward. There's not an extraneous scene in the entire movie. Every single one is necessary. This doesn't pertain to just the opening of your book. Don't include scenes where characters are sitting around talking.

Every scene needs a point, whether it's to reveal character, give the reader information, add conflict, propel the plot, or something else. Preferably, each scene will do more than one thing. But if it's just there as a place holder or something to mark the passage of time, cut it.

As with any writing "rule," the info dump one can be broken, of course. Large sections of back story can work. So can flashbacks. Both can be done well. But beginning writers tend to lean on them as their primary way to tell a story, and generally speaking, there are more effective ways, and amateurism will show if all you do is info dumps.

The times I've personally seen flashbacks and back story dumps work the best have been at the hands of masters. Also at the hands of NY Times best-selling authors who have proven themselves and can now type the phone book and get a million copies pre-sold. They can break the rules because of who they are. But even they rarely do it in the opening scenes.

Are you starting in the right place? Scroll down to page five of your manuscript and start reading there. You might just have a better beginning hidden on that page. Does the action really get going there (or on page 3 or 6 or 12)? Very often the first several pages are what's commonly called "throat-clearing" and not really where you want to start.

You can also do what I do: Begin the first page with "Chapter ?" That way you aren't so stuck on the idea of this being Chapter 1 that you can't let it go or renumber it.

That little question mark can be rather freeing.


Charlie Moore said...

Very good instruction, Annette. This a problem I have. I think many writers do.

Charlie Moore

Heather Moore said...

Great examples--just what I need as I start the dreaded edit.

Stephanie Black said...

I like how you pointed out that even when the action slows down after the initial scene in Raiders, the story keeps moving forward. One thing that bugs me is when I read a novel with an exciting opening--and then chapter two is Infodump City. I feel like the author got the message about starting with a gripping opening, but is still using infodumps to give info. I'd rather have information woven organically into the story, not handed to me in big chunks.

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

Brilliant post, Annette. My work in progress initially started with a looking out the window scene, which was changed to a getting bullied scene, and is now a scene involving playing a board game with the family cat.

Yeah...still needs some work.

Thanks for the great insights!

hi, it's me! melissa c said...

I really like this post. Mainly because it is the story of my life!

In fact, I just re-wrote the first chapter, again and I really like it now. I do wonder if it will stay as it is.

Thanks for all the good advice!

EmmaTheJane said...

It's funny that this was the topic. My friend and I just swapped stories and when we compared feedback I said hers started too slow and she said mine started too fast. How come my map doesn't have directions to the perfect middle ground?

Julie Wright said...

Great post, Annette. I tend to start slow and have to rewrite. I am so grateful for rewriting.