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.