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.