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What makes a good beginning? Whether it’s the first line, first paragraph, first page, or first scene, here are some things to think about when planning the beginning of your story.
In my view, the most common mistakes with beginnings are:
- Starting the story without a scene, and instead a bunch of world building, an infodump, some dry narration, or a bunch of summarization and backstory (“telling”). Often this comes in a “prologue” chapter. Unless you are a grandmaster author and can make your telling of backstory actually interesting, it’s best to start your story with an actual scene that pulls your reader into the story.
- Starting with a scene, but spending too much time on setting description before getting into the character and showing what’s going on through actions, thoughts, and dialogue. Epic fantasy novels are often guilty of this, where the reader must wade through pages and pages of descriptions of castles and clothes and banners and banquets before getting into a character’s point of view.
- Starting with a character in a scene, but starting the story too early, before anything interesting happens, such as with the get-out-of-bed or daily routine scene, or the drive to work, or the “board room” or “meeting” scene that’s really just a bunch of exposition.
- Likewise, starting the scene too late, such as in the middle of a conflict without the setup of character and a goal. This usually leads to the reader’s confusion or inability to bond with the character unless you’re very careful about it.
Let’s say you’ve avoided all those pitfalls, and you’re starting your scene, from a character’s point of view, and at a point where something interesting is happening or about to happen. Great! Here are some more things to watch out for:
- Not including any setting description in the first paragraph or two, leading to “white box syndrome”—the reader doesn’t have enough information to build an image in their imagination. A little goes a long way, but just make sure to have something.
- Not including the character(s) name, gender, and approximate age in the first paragraph or page, also known as “talking heads syndrome.” This information is usually implied not stated outright.
- Starting out with a weak point of view that doesn’t match what you’re supposed to be writing. For example, shallow first/third person instead of deep, which makes it hard for the reader to get into the character because there aren’t enough character thoughts, emotions, and reactions. Or, if writing omniscient point of view, not handling it well (it’s hard and often mucks up beginnings, because people don’t usually expect omniscient so you’ve got to ease them into it and set up the expectation).
- Not picking a good character to follow, such as not starting with the story’s main character, even though their point of view is 90% of the scenes. This results in the reader getting invested in a character who doesn’t matter, then they have to start all over with the “real” main character. Or, if you’re doing many of points of view in your book, starting the book in the point of view of some jerk or wimpy-whiner that isn’t going to make readers want to read more.
- Likewise, not giving the reader a reason to care about the point-of-view character in the first few pages. Are they the underdog? Are they righteous, do they self-sacrifice, or do they care and love something or someone dearly? They’d better have some kind of emotional hook about them so the reader wants to care about this person and their story. In general, if your character cares about something, your reader will care about your character.
- Not including some kind of hook in the first paragraph, ideally the first line, that raises a question to which readers want an answer. Study the first lines or first paragraphs of famous novels and you’ll find many great examples.
- Not establishing a scene-level goal for the character in the first page. The hook is fine and dandy, but soon readers will want a bigger plot question, and that’s where the goal comes in. As Kurt Vonnegut said, every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Not establishing scene-level conflict in which the character has personal stakes, usually in the first page, if not sooner. This is the conflict that prevents the character from reaching their goal, and takes up most of the scene.
- Not foreshadowing/hinting at the plot-level goals and conflicts to come. Ideally this happens in the first scene.
- Not establishing what kind of world this story is set in if it’s not present day real world (e.g. fantasy, sci-fi, historical, steampunk, etc.). This is usually done subtly with setting description and dialogue right from the first few lines. For example, if magic is commonplace and there’s no mention of it until Chapter 3, readers will feel blindsided when people start shooting fireballs at each other.
You may ask, but I’ve read books that had slow, boring beginnings—how do big name authors get away with it? Yes, it’s true, weak beginnings are out there, but you’ll find they aren’t usually in the author’s best known works. The author gets away with it primarily because readers are willing to put up with it, since the story surely will get better later, because it’s from a big name author.
So then why are strong beginnings important for the rest of us? Because for most writers, readers won’t have that same patience.