The start of your story is just so important. Just ask any editor or agent how long it takes them to reach a “no” on your submission—if they’re being honest, they’re gonna say it takes them just a few paragraphs.
If they’re getting through a few pages before that no comes, it’s because your writing is at least good, but your beginning failed. Here are five warning signs you’re off to a bad start. If you’ve got any of these, whether at the beginnings of scenes, chapters, or even at the start of your book, they’re not hard to fix if you can understand why they don’t work.
- The Prologue
Prologues are basically back story, and they’re usually not information we need right at the beginning. The beginning is where the trouble starts, and if we don’t see trouble, we get bored pretty fast. If you’re tempted to write a prologue, ask yourself: does the audience need to know this, and do they need to know it right now? Long running serials are sometimes an exception, as readers need a prologue to bring themselves up to speed—but if you’ve got a long running serial on your hands, you probably don’t need my advice.
- The Alarm Clock
When I see an alarm clock in the first few sentences of story, here’s what inevitably happens next: the character will lazily roll out of bed, go to the bathroom, brush their teeth, look in the mirror (where upon they’ll start ruminating inside their own head), go downstairs and sit at the table and enjoy a glass of orange juice, yada, yada, yada, boring, boring, boring. The reader needs none of this. It’s a bland and mundane start of someone’s day. Begin where the trouble starts for the character instead, and skip the waking up.
- The Dream
Dreams are what I call throat clearing—extraneous material a writer uses to warm up to a story’s real beginning. Start with a dream and you risk infuriating your reader when they realize that they’ve just been reading something that isn’t actually happening, and is the quintessential rumination inside a character’s head. It’s dull. One exception is if the dream is integral to the story (in other words, it presents the story problem), and it’s really clear the character is dreaming .
- The Unknown Speaker
Starting a story with dialogue is problematic because it’s confusing to readers. We don’t know who’s speaking and often have to backtrack once we figure it out. It’s the rare scene or story whose beginning can’t be recast to put the dialogue second. Just take a minute to orient your reader and tell them who’s in the scene, then let them start talking.
- The Navel Gazer
Stories that start out with a character pondering in their own mind don’t present us with a story problem (because the story problem is almost always something external), and these kinds of openings are usually expository summary of something we should’ve seen happen as action, in story time. In other words, it’s dull and boring. Start us with the action, where the trouble starts for your character, not lost in the character’s thoughts.
I’ve done all of the above at least once myself, sometimes without even realizing it. The more you work on your beginnings, though, the strong the story that will follow.