The beginning of your book is perhaps the most important thing you will write. It is not enough to just use a few words to start, you have to spend time and thought on it, it has to make sense. In this article I will explain the mistakes you should avoid, how NOT to start your story, and I am sure that this will also help you understand how to start it.
Remember: write your first draft freely, without making any fuss, but when you finish the story and it comes time to edit, you have to consider what makes your story a masterpiece and what makes it boring. Be free in the draft, but a strict professor in the final version.
1. Don’t start with a character who wakes up
One of the most famous clichés in literature, along with the one I mention in the next point, and perhaps one of the most annoying.
The sound of the alarm clock at the beginning of a chapter has been used so many times that it is now the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about starting a story.
But don’t fall into the trap, remember that the beginning is a crucial point in your story and that using the alarm clock sound will lose you 70% of readers and editors.
Unless the story is centred on something strange in terms of time or there is an evil shower that wants to take over the world, don’t start the chapter by putting your protagonist’s morning routine. Nobody cares what kind of conditioner he uses or that their converse is worn.
2. Don’t start with a dream
This temptation is sometimes stronger than the first one. Because this is justified by a flood of writers who use the logic ‘the dream has something to do with the story, the protagonist has traumas and they are reflected in the dreams’. And I understand where the idea comes from but there are two problems:
- The way these dreams are treated is totally unrealistic. Many of us have traumas, but we don’t dream about what happened, the same, every night. Dreams often carry messages from the subconscious, but they are never clear. We dream random things, if anything, that relate to what we experienced before we went to sleep, and then within these there are details or people that belong to our trauma. But if my trauma is being run over, I don’t dream about a car running over me every day.
- The problem with starting with the dream is that it is used to introduce a character and his trauma. But the reader does not know that person. He cannot feel sorrow, cannot care about something that is not even happening now, but has already happened.
On the first page the reader wants action. Not random words, not backstory, not dreams that do not even explain anything, action. What happens now in the protagonist’s life that is worthy of being told?
3. Start the story now
Don’t stall, the first chapter is not a test chapter. In fact, it is one of the most important.
Many editors claim that most of the stories they receive start at the second or third chapter. And that is not a good thing. It does you no good to waste time, the story started at this point. Why now? What is happening?
To help you with this, I have thought of a little trick.
Write and complete the whole story. Then when you go to edit, start from chapter three. And see if the story still makes sense from there and if that improves it.
Become the professional editor who will then judge your writing.
If the story works from that chapter, well that is your new beginning. If the story does NOT work from that point but you need the ACTIONS of the first two chapters, then those are actually worthy of staying in the final version.
4. The first sentence must be about something important to the plot
To think that a reader who does not know you will give you more than the first line to win him over is very optimistic.
I myself, when I am in a bookshop, am first attracted by the beautiful covers, then by the interesting title and if I then open the book, I read the first sentence.
Am I wrong? Probably yes, and I miss out on a lot of masterpieces that way.
But when you are in a bookshop, surrounded by a flood of different stimuli and genres, the time you spend on any one book is very little.
On top of that, publishing houses also attach a lot of importance to the first sentence, and if it is meaningless to the plot, you risk being discarded pretty quickly.
That is why it is essential that you choose the first sentence of your book well.
Let me give you an example, imagine if Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf had started like this:
“Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days, June o July, she forgot which, for his letters were awfully dull;”
This is a sentence taken from the first page of the book, but found in the last lines. Reading it, what would you think the book revolves around? Peter Walsh, right? He is the centre of the story, maybe the book is a romance between him and the narrator?
Now let us read together the actual first sentence of Mrs Dalloway:
“Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
If you know the book, you know that these iconic words can be linked to the whole core of the story. Mrs Dalloway’s party.
But let’s say you don’t know it. What thought would they provoke in you?
Why does she need the flowers? Why does she buy them herself? Who else would buy them for her?
The first sentence immediately builds an idea in the reader’s head, and you must ensure that he is not disappointed to read that the story is about something else entirely. Use a sentence relevant to the plot.
The beginning of this classic has driven millions of people to read this book, not to discard it. A century has passed since these words were written and they are still read and loved today.
To be a better writer, there is nothing better than learning from writers who have defeated every enemy, even time.
5. Don’t start it with the first day of school
School is hardly ever so important to the plot as to be worth mentioning in the first chapter. And even if it was, it would be rather boring wouldn’t it?
Hogwarts is a very important part of the ‘Harry Potter’ plot, but imagine if the whole saga had started with him finding out he’s a wizard, getting ready, buying everything and then leaving. All in the same, first chapter.
It would probably have just seemed like a children’s fairy tale with a little wizard. And many readers would not have bothered to go on.
Instead, ‘Harry Potter’ starts like this:
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”
You will understand for yourself how much these few words spark interest and excitement even in those unfamiliar with the saga. In addition to their excellent syntax, these sentences raise several questions.
First, who are these Dursleys? Why are we told their home address? What are they involved in? What is strange and mysterious?
You have to arouse the same kind of curiosity in those who will read your story.
I take this moment as an opportunity to remind you of one thing: ‘Harry Potter’ has become a classic, read by billions of people, complimented by thousands of literary writers and publishers. Despite this, Rowling and her manuscript were rejected 12 times. So remember that being rejected does not mean that your book is not valuable. Keep trying.
Related article: How to Write a Good Hook & Start Your Novel with a Bang!
6. Don’t start by talking about the weather
“It was a dark and stormy night”. I personally love this phrase that had become a meme back in the 1800s, when it was first written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in the novel Paul Clifford.
It has been used so many times by that writer that it is now used to describe an overly melodramatic beginning. It is a clear example, however, of how you cannot start the story by talking about the weather.
Unless it is a short dialogue that serves the plot, it is not a choice that will work in your favour. If what is hitting the window are water drops and not small meteors, we probably don’t care. At least not as a first sentence.
7. Don’t start with the backstory
You can’t immediately fill the reader with information about the protagonist’s whole life, that matters more to the writer, the reader can’t feel anything for someone they don’t even know.
It’s a harsh truth I know but the reader cannot love your beloved characters, even before knowing what’s special about them.
Putting the backstory right from the first page, but also the first chapter, will have the opposite effect. The reader will feel no sorrow or emotion and you will have just played out information that could have come out slowly in the plot instead.
Do not reveal all your cards before the game even begins.
8. Dialogue is not the most suitable choice
I told you in the earlier points that short dialogue that serves the plot is acceptable, but I emphasise short.
As I have already said, the reader does not yet know anything about the characters, so they cannot be interested in just any conversation. You can, however, start with a single line that is relevant to the story.
To give you an example I will use a saga that is often judged, but I think the writer did a very good job with the beginning of the story, and the first dialogue.
This dialogue is on the first page:
“There,” she says when she pins the knot in place. Her eyes catch mine in the mirror. It is too late to look away, but instead of scolding me, she smiles at our reflection.
I frown a little. Why doesn’t she reprimand me for staring at myself?
“So today is the day,” she says.
“Yes,” I reply.
“Are you nervous?”
I stare into my own eyes for a moment. Today is the day of the aptitude test that will show me which of the five factions I belong in. And tomorrow, at the Choosing Ceremony, I will decide on a faction; I will decide the rest of my life; I will decide to stay with my family or abandon them.
“No,” I say. “The tests don’t have to change our choices.”
“Right.” She smiles. “Let’s go eat breakfast.”
“Thank you. For cutting my hair.”
This dialogue is not accidental. It starts the whole story and already gives us a lot of information about the world we are stepping into. And the information that it touches upon but does not give, triggers questions that push us forward. And in the end that’s the point of it all, to make the reader curious, to keep him reading.
After all this, you may ask, if I cannot use any of this, how can I start my book?
Well, the examples I have given you should already have sparked small ideas in your head, ready to blossom.
But if they are not enough, you can read these incipits of the most famous books in literature, and learn from those who have racked their brains writing the first page before you.
Remember that after all only you can choose what is best for your story, I trust you will do a great job.
I was very direct in this article, as I write I am listening to the soundtrack of supermario maybe that has something to do with it, but I also think that this is the best way to get the message across.
The publishing world is ruthless, new books are published every day and writers are in constant competition, without a break.
If you want to get a place, you have to earn it and to do that you have to work hard. There is no other way.
But if you are reading this article you are already one step ahead, it means you are informing yourself and trying to become better writers. And if you keep at it, you will certainly succeed.
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