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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

1. Don't start the story at the beginning (Writing for Success)

Note: This is part 1 in a series of 25 articles from my upcoming 'Writing for Success' series (NEW: Buy the book HERE).

1. Don't start the story at the beginning
A controversial start to an article! It’s very tempting when you begin a story or a novel to start at the beginning. That is usually a mistake. Why? Quite simply because beginnings of stories usually aren’t that interesting. If you want to hook a reader from the very beginning, start with something exciting. Maybe an argument, a murder, a conflict, a car crash or a funeral. Anything but an introductory narrative. And that goes for prologues too. Prologues do not belong in first novels or first books of series.

Let’s give a small example. Following is the way NOT to start the story:
It was a windy day as Steven walked along the street towards his house. He was glad to be finished with work and was looking forward to spending some time with his wife this evening. They had been married nearly four years and the move to Wendington Heights had been the right decision. His parents had said he was too young to get married at twenty-three but his relationship had proved them wrong. Steven leaned into the wind and grabbed the edges of his coat as he walked. He smiled to himself. Why hadn’t he bought that car like his wife, Susan, had suggested? It certainly would have made the journey to work easier. Every day there was always some reason why the buses weren’t on time. Still, he had a good job and working at the Midland Bank meant he had good job prospects. Besides, it allowed Susan to stay at home and practice her artwork. 
Finally Steven reached his gate and he pushed it open. He put his key in the lock of the door and went inside. “Susan, I’m home,” he called out. “Susan?” Steven put his briefcase down in the hallway, took off his coat and walked into the kitchen. “Susan?” There was no reply. Not to worry, she was probably at the store or something. Steven cracked open a beer and took it upstairs with him. “Damn it,” he said out loud as he tripped over a baseball bat on the landing. “What’s that doing here?” He pushed open his bedroom door and let his beer drop to the floor. “Susan?” he screamed. “Susan?” Steven ran over to the bloodied body that was lying on the bed.
What’s wrong with this? Well, first off I will say that for the sake of conciseness I have shortened my bad example. Books like this usually start off with at least a page of introduction. They’re concerned with telling you everything about the main character. How old he is, what he looks like, where he works, why he’s doing what he does, etc. You get the picture. But what is it all leading up to? As you can see by the very last sentence, it’s all leading up to a murder probably. So why not start with the murder? And when I say ‘start’ I mean in the very first sentence. The beginning of a story needs to grip the reader otherwise they may never get past the first page. Backstory can always be filled in later. So how about a small rewrite like this instead?
“Susan? No! Wake up. What happened?” Steven rolled the bloodied body of his wife over onto her back and looked into her lifeless face. “Susan!” 
Steven fell to his knees and wept; his hands trying to feel if she had a pulse. Her body felt cold and inside he knew she was already dead. He allowed his head to drop onto her stomach and he let out a smothered scream. The baseball bat he had tripped over in the hallway should have sent warning signals rushing through him but he hadn’t expected anything unusual. Wendington Heights was supposed to be one of the safest areas of Pennsylvania. 
The police. He had to call the police. Steven pushed himself to his feet and wiped his face. The blood. He was covered with Susan’s blood. Was that okay? Would the police think he did it? He had to call them. There were a thousand thoughts speeding through his head at the same time. Maybe he should wash it off. No, maybe that would look worse. What was he going to do? Maybe he shouldn’t have picked up the baseball bat and put it on the hallway table either. What had he been thinking? 
The police. “I have to call the police,” he said, falling back against the bedroom wall and letting his hands steady himself. Bloodied handprints smeared the paintwork.
In this example there is already conflict. Susan is dead. Steven discovered the body. But he’s covered with blood too. What should he do? Perhaps he really did it. I for one want to continue reading so that I can find out what’s going to happen. Like I said, you can fill in the backstory later. It’s not important on the first page that Steven is twenty-seven, that he works in a bank, that he takes the bus to work, and that his wife practices her artwork. Are these things important? Maybe. But if they are then they can be introduced later. The most important thing to do on page one of a book is to hook the reader. Never start a story at the beginning. Find that place where there is something going on and start the story there.


  1. This post reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's 5th rule for writing a short story (Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction):
    1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
    2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
    3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
    4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
    5. Start as close to the end as possible.
    6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
    7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
    8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

  2. The first thing I thought when I saw this was that I wish you'd not just limited it to starting too early. I've heard this advice for utterly years, and it may be one of the reasons I have the opposite problem -- starting too late. That doesn't seem bad -- I've actually had people say, "I wish I had that problem." All I can say is no, you don't. I started 33K too late, and ended up losing most of my novel in revision when I fixed it. Starting too late kept theme and subplots out of the story, and caused it to run too short. It made it a mess to untangle because setup for the beginning was turning up at the end of the story.

  3. Very, very good advice, and a piece I always go by when I'm writing. I've started books far too early before and they've gotten well out of hand for that. The closer to the action, the better.

  4. Though there are over 30 books to my name, I have only written 2 novels, one very short and the other not too much longer. However, according to Dorset's advice I almost nailed it at the beginning, but not quite. When I write my next novel I'll remember Paul's sound counsel.

  5. As always, Paul, another great article! I totally agree. I didn't even get half-way through the wrong example, but was hooked by the correct example, reading it to the end. :-)

  6. Thanks all for your kind words... We all learn more and more each day.

  7. I've actually read this post more than once. This is one of those "formula" things and works for many writers. As an avid reader I have to say I've read many books, mystery, sci fi, fantasy, horror and in almost every genre many of the stories DO start at the beginning of the tale and keep your interest until the end, which comes at the end of the novel.

    I think it depends on the story itself and how the author lays out the tale with his or her own style.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not poo-pooing this part of a formula that does work well for many mystery writers. I also think this depends on the authors talent at spinning a tale that makes the difference.


  8. I'll add that a reader shouldn't get the impression that the lives of the characters began when the reader picked up the book. In this sense, characters seem to exist for the sake of the story, which is not at all an engaging technique, IMO.

    To the matter at hand though, a writer's starting in the wrong place has a couple of symptoms for the writer, chiefly that he or she continues to ponder the beginning while working through the story--even afterward. As far as the reader's perspective--does this book start in the right place?--I'm not sure, but there's likely a right starting place for the writer, and finding this place can really propel you forward.

    And the right starting place, I think, has nothing at all to do with the poignancy of the event; it's more about the mental state of the character(s) at that given moment in time.

  9. Actually I quite like prologues when they are done right. And I hate it when an author pulls a scene out of the middle of the book and puts it at the beginning just to get my attention. Then I know that scene is coming and often it disclosed something I would have wondered about, so putting it first lessened the intrigue. I always suspect it was the publisher who did this.

  10. Am I allowed to have Chapter One as a scene from the past that is exciting and then start the next chapter with two hundred and fifty years later? I've done it anyway, just want an opinion.

    1. That's called a prologue... First books of series should never have prologues IMHO. In single books prologues can work sometimes.

    2. I have to disagree. There are so many first books of a series out there that have prologues at the start; even if they're not called prologues. This is true for fantasy especially.

    3. That's why I said "In My Humble Opinion." Just because people do it, doesn't make it right :-) There are many articles about the "do's and don'ts" of prologues. But - great discussion.

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