When to start your story

2010
05.30

You’ve probably heard lots of rules about when to start your story. Some of these include, “start at the moment of change,” “never use a prologue,” “never start with a dream,” “start late, end early,” etc.

So when should you start? First and foremost, let’s consider what NEEDS to happen before the end of the first chapter (in my opinion).

Set the Scene – The setting will show where and when, and include some vital details about your world that must be conveyed to the reader. The consequences of not setting the scene properly are severe. You reader could mistake the world for 1800’s China when you mean to write about 3200 England, and when they see a laser gun come into play, you’ve lost them.

Introduce the Main Character – When you reader engages the first chapter, they are subconsciously giving you, the author, a free pass. “Yes, Mr. Author. I will go out on a limb and try my best to become attached to your world, and more importantly, your main character. I will learn what they are like, and I will empathize with them,” they think. They will want to be attached to the main character (and in most POV’s, the narrator). Consequences of NOT introducing the main character are also harsh. Your reader will get all set to read a story about a elderly werewolf getting long-in-the-tooth (sorry, couldn’t stop myself!), then the next chapter, feel totally ripped off when they find out the story is about his great grandson instead.

Set the Tone, Voice and Pacing – Is this an action book, jumping from explosion to fight scene? Or is this a love story, windy and laced with emotion. Perhaps it is a story about internal conflict, where we struggle slowly with the main character as they grow through things like addiction. Also, how does the book “sound” in the readers head? Is the narrative matter-of-fact, or witty and spry? If you setup for something that you don’t deliver in the following chapters, your book will be dropped to the floor.

Hook the Reader – By the end of the very first chapter, your reader MUST be hooked. If they are not hooked, they have no reason to keep reading. How do you hook them? Usually by introducing the main conflict, or having something unanswered that the reader can’t wait to find out. I can write a whole post on how to hook, but for this post, just know it is necessary by the end of first chapter.

Show the Moment of Change – The moment of change in the single action or event that starts THIS story. Now, you can justify ANY moment of your characters life as the “changing point,” but you must really look at JUST THIS STORY. It is easy to say, “Well, if he didn’t apply for this job, the story would have never started.” Or, “If he didn’t meet that girl, he would have never applied for that job,” or, “If he didn’t go to that college, he would have never met that girl,” etc, etc, etc. The fact of that matter is that every single event leads to the next one, so these are poor excuses. What you need to do is find the moment in which the characters life is altered from THEIR daily routine; The moment in which they START the journey that leads to the climax. The moment in which the character starts to chase after his one main goal for the story (whether he knows that is what he is doing or not) is where the story begins.

So, you must set the scene, introduce the main character, set the voice, tone and pacing, hook the reader, and show the moment of change. How are you going to do all this? By timing it perfectly. If you start too soon, you won’t have time to show that first moment of change, and probably won’t hook the reader. You also run dangerously close to infodumping, and even if you can avoid it, you will find you are telling a story that is not imperative to your plot. If you start too late, you will have a difficult time weaving in the settings, the characters personality, and the tone and voice, as the action or tension will take over the chapter.

You are tasked with starting the book at the perfect spot.

About half of a chapter BEFORE the moment of change seems to be a pretty solid rule. You give yourself a little time to set the world and introduce the character so the reader can get a picture of who he is and what his daily life is like. The moment of change also will have more meaning to the reader when you know what is changing in the first place.

The second half of the chapter can start on the journey, all the while giving your reader questions that they are dying to find answers to. This will both hook them and set the tone, voice and pacing.

I find there is not perfect formula. There is no one-size-fits-all, and there is not hard fast rule, rather a set of guide lines, but the previous seems to work most of the time.

I WILL say this, though.

If you have a prologue, it had DARN better be important to the story. SO important, that if it was removed, your audience would be confused. If you don’t introduce your main character in the first chapter, you had also better have a DARN good reason. Your reader WILL be jarred when the next chapter is about someone else, and you risk loosing them. Ask yourself, “is it worth the risk?” In the same vain, you had better have a DARN good reason to show the first chapter from a different POV from the rest of the book… same reasoning as leaving out the main character.

So, dear readers, be very cautious about your beginning. It’s true that every part of your manuscript is important, but the beginning is when you will either earn (and I MEAN earn) your reader, or you will lose them. You must consider every word, every sentence, every paragraph, and every scene. If it is not building the character, starting the plot, setting the scene, or hooking your reader (and really, everything should be doing MORE than one of those at a time), then you need to scratch it.

Your reader is promising you a certain amount of attention. It is up to you to ask them for more. Every word you write is costing you a portion of that “promised time,” so be sure what you “must” keep in is worth the price you are paying… valuable moments of attention that will either earn, or lose, your readers time.

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12 Responses to “When to start your story”

  1. It’s funny, because I agree with your ‘rules,’ yet, in the last month or so, I have read the intros of about a dozen books and manuscripts and I have seen most of those rules broken. I have seen a manuscript that didn’t set the scene or introduce the main character before the moment of change. Another started with a dream carrying a different tone and pacing than the rest of the manuscript. Another started at a moment of change, but it was from a different perspective. One started with a geometry lesson and purposefully withheld the main character’s name. And I have read an intro that had no interest in hooking the reader or showing a moment of change, but was focused character development (it was a sequel if it helps). Some of these were from group, and others were from books now on my shelf. I agree with your rules, especially if they are rules intended to be bent, or even broken, to tell the story.

  2. töff says:

    > “agree with your ‘rules,’ yet, in the last month or so, I have read the intros of about a dozen books and manuscripts and I have seen most of those rules broken”

    It’s a continual source of discouragement and frustration that the publishing industry as a whole expounds rules with the left hand while distributing with the right hand books that break those rules. And I don’t mean in a poetic-license, “broke the rule good” kinda way. I mean, half of the shyte I see on the bookstore shelves falls far behind the quality of work I read from some unpublished writers. It seriously despairs me.

    Oh well. Life ain’t fair. Deal with it!

  3. C. Michael Fontes says:

    @Toff

    Yeah, I agree. In this case, I am speaking for my self. While the “industry” rules may fall in line with some of my views on this matter, these are really my rules for a successful beginning. There are tons and tons of books that break these rules, and I am not saying that they aren’t bendable given the right set of circumstances, but I think these rules make for a tighter, more effective opening to a book.

  4. Myrna Foster says:

    I’m going to try cutting my prologue, even though I really like it, and starting with Lani and Jaavan at the tree. There are other places I can work in the information. I liked the prologue because it shows what happened and sets up the relationships of everyone at Asterlea.

  5. C. Michael Fontes says:

    @Myrna
    I hope you don’t think I was writing this post about you… I had been thinking about this for a while, and it was actually spurred by a comment about my piece. I do, however, think your piece would be better starting there (and I am glad you picked the scene with Lani… I like her!)

  6. töff says:

    .
    .
    .
    Find: “Chapter 3” ; Replace with: “Chapter 4”
    Find: “Chapter 2” ; Replace with: “Chapter 3”
    Find: “Chapter 1” ; Replace with: “Chapter 2”
    Find: “Prologue” ; Reaplce with: “Chapter 1”
    /done

  7. C. Michael Fontes says:

    @Toff
    LOL. Close, but no. My issue is not with naming, rather content 😉

  8. Myrna Foster says:

    Okay, Toff totally made me laugh! I’ve actually had that thought, but it wasn’t what I meant.

    Chris, you told me you were going to be posting this, and I know it’s not about me.

  9. Myrna, I liked your prologue, intro, soon-to-be-scrape, almost chapter 1 thingy. I thought it had a lot of action and emotion to hook the reader, set the scene for the story, was very dynamic, and introduced a handful of the main characters. With a few tweaks (including POV – hint, hint), I would love it. I will be sad to see it go away completely.

  10. Myrna Foster says:

    Thanks, Ryan. It’s not necessarily gone forever. There are a lot of great books with prologues that tell part of the story from a different character’s POV. I’m just trying something different. Finding new ways to tell the story helps me figure out what parts are necessary.

  11. roh says:

    Hmm…the whole “no prologue” rule of the publishing world is a ridiculous.

    But I caved, and my prologue for Watcher is now Chapter 1 – though I doubt I’m fooling anyone.

    My other stuff starts with the moment or two before an ‘event’, so it sounds like I stumbled onto the correct formula.

    Nice topic.

  12. David Oliver says:

    I must say that you have some excellent ideas for starting up a story. I took the time to read through your suggestions carefully and your language was surprisingly thorough. Every time I thought I found a good hook to make a comment on, you added a disclaimer line or something similar which rendered my comment obsolete. Oh, but life is hard for the drive by blog reader….

    Ok, I will make a few comments. You did state that your suggestions were but guidelines so I understand that my comments may be unneeded, but there were a few points I wanted to comment on. The first is the supposition that the beginning chapter, or indeed any subsequent chapter will be of sufficient length to allow for a well paced placement of all these elements. An example that comes to mind is the author L E Modesitt Jr. In many of his books he specializes in one to three page chapters where each chapter covers but a single scene, or in some cases a single perspective. While this is not the norm, I do recall reading other people utilizing similar structures. For this point, then, I guess my comment is to know ahead of time your desired chapter structure and length and then decide how to place which elements to create the strongest beginning.

    A second point I would like to make is in regards to your suggestion that the writer uses the first half of the chapter to set the stage and the second half of the chapter to show the moment of change. I can agree with this on a general level but I think it should be made clear that the timing, or in very rare cases the inclusion of the moment of change is dynamic based on the needs and pacing of the story as well as the temperament of the writer. I would consider it a decent start to a story where the first chapter is almost entirely setting the stage and character(s) and the moment of change is nearly at the end. In such a scenario I could even see a change in pacing being utilized to good measure. For example the first chapter might follow the main character going through his normal lazy Sunday routine. The tone and pacing would be relaxed to match the mentality of the character and the chapter would be used to connect the reader to the character and the world. At the end of the chapter, in the last paragraph, the character turns on the TV and sees that a meteor took out the eastern seaboard. As such the following chapter would have a more hectic pace as well as the details of the moment of change. I know your suggestion was just a guideline, but I wished to emphasize the dynamic nature of a first chapter. The writer must be aware above all how they wish to hook the reader.

    The third point I would like to make is a suggestion that the writer decide prior to writing the first chapter if they wish for their story to be character driven or plot driven. If it is character driven then it is imperative that the reader learns to love (or hate, or empathize, or….) the main character(s). If it is plot driven then it is equally imperative that the reader understands the world, or at least starts to understand the world so that they can more fully jump into the plot from page one. While it is important to include both elements in the beginning, as you said the reader needs to know where and when the story is taking place and whom the story involves, knowing ahead of time what the story’s driving force is will allow the writer to set the tone of the piece by choosing how to focus the story and will allow the reader an easier time to fall into the stories pace.

    The fourth point is also a general suggestion. It IS important to start your story with a strong beginning and the suggestions laid out are an excellent guideline for doing just that, but if you, the writer are just starting a story and you are not certain if your beginning is strong enough, paced correctly, starting at the right moment, or any number of other things, then my suggestion is to just move on. The best start to your story is not going to be found in your first draft, perhaps not even in your second or third draft. Some of the elements needed to make the best first chapter, such as timing the moment of change, pacing and what not may not be clear at the very start of the story. My suggestion, then, is to simply write the first chapter and move on. Write the story, edit it, know it, love it, then go back to your first chapter, take a look at these guidelines and polish your first chapter so that it is the best chapter that you can make. First chapters are important, but so is finishing the book. Don’t get too caught up on the details until you are finished.

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