Want to write bestselling fiction? There’s one simple rule: keep readers reading. Authors have more challenges with story beginnings than they do with anything else, except perhaps the dreaded middle of a novel.
Start with heart: that is, focus on emotion, always. This usually means conflict. Readers will only read if they’re engaged — if they care about your characters.
Not only do story beginnings slow authors down, because they’ve heard that first pages are “important”, but they also they encourage bad habits.
Bad habits to avoid when starting a new novel, short story, or novella
Let’s look at some bad habits, then we’ll look at some tips to help you to overcome them.
Bad habits include:
- Micro-managing your inspiration in your first draft. In your initial draft, all that matters is that you start your story. Chances are you’ll delete the first few scenes later anyway;
- Explaining too much. Info-dumping in your first few scenes (or at any time);
- Starting with a dramatic scene. Yes, you want to start with a bang, but your readers need to care about the people involved, otherwise they stop caring — and reading;
- Reworking your first chapter, or scene — rereading, rereading and editing the material into oblivion (the cure? NO EDITING in first drafts).
- Introducing too many characters in your first few scenes. Introduce your leads asap, but avoid naming too many characters too soon;
- Meandering — start your story’s engine as soon as you can.
How to write great story beginnings
1. Don’t begin at the beginning
If you’re nervous about your story’s beginning, leave it. There’s no law which states that you must write your fiction chronologically.
Start with a later scene. You don’t have to introduce your characters before you understand them yourself. Watch your characters act, as you write, then go back and write the first few scenes later.
2. Avoid flashbacks and flash forwards: focus on scenes
Avoid lengthy flashbacks. They stop your story cold, and they’re rarely necessary. If you must have a flashback because your story hinges on something or other, give it an entire scene, or a chapter to itself. Start the scene with: “Twenty years earlier…”
Impatient readers will skim it anyway, to get back to the story. You may take that scene out in later drafts, or find an easier way to integrate the information.
3. Start your engine — get to the point and set up your story
It’s vital that something happens in the beginning of your story. New authors tend to go on for thousands of words, with nothing much happening.
What’s the point of your story? Let’s say it’s “elderly billionaire murdered for his millions, suspects include his trophy wife, three ex-wives and his five children. My Clever Sleuth (MCS) solves the mystery, and gets a promotion.”
Introduce MCS. Let readers see him in action. Then MCS gets called to the murder scene.
Or, you could start with the victim. Show him being nasty to his children, stripping an ex-wife or two of her income, and firing a few thousand people. Then introduce MCS, show him in action… then he hears about the billionaire’s murder.
Focus on action, and ensure that your characters act. Passive characters drain the life out of your story. Whiners, complainers, and victims, ditto. Eliminate all passive characters. If you’re writing New Adult fiction, you can get away with your heroine being a passive complaining victim. Maybe.
However, writing passive characters can develop into a bad habit, so avoid passivity, no matter what genre you’re writing.
Readers always just want to get on with it. They want action, so…
4. Focus on ACTION. Create characters who act: passive characters are annoying (except perhaps in the New Adult genre)
Action means events. However, these aren’t disconnected events. They’re always directly related to your story. In life, things happen which are disconnected — someone breaks into your home, you lose your job, you go out to dinner…
In fiction, everything’s related to the point — your story. Nothing just happens. Things happen for a reason, and those events alter whatever follows.
5. Everyone’s fighting with everyone else: add conflict on every page
Just as events happen for a reason, conflict is always for a reason too. In your first draft, you may write along for chapters on end and have no idea why two characters are fighting. Your subconscious knows. Suddenly all will become plain, and you’ll realize that you need to add a scene or two in your next draft, to set up this conflict, and intensify it.
In later drafts, intensify all conflict.
Remember: emotion. You feel the emotion, characters experience it and react, and you keep readers reading.
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