I’ve made so many false starts in my writing career that if I were an Olympic athlete, I would’ve been de-spiked and sent home in disgrace a long time ago. But all those howlingly bad openings — and a boatload of editing experience — have taught me some valuable lessons about how to start a story . . . and perhaps more importantly, how not to start one.
Self-editing is all about recognising the things in your own writing that will turn readers off, so here are the five red flags I come across all the time on opening pages. Beginnings are crucial and you really owe it to your work to spend as much time as you need to get them right.
If you find any of the following in your writing, put on your cutting pants, break out your emergency red pencil, and get to work.
1. Weather reports
Weather reports are boring in real life, never mind at the start of a story — unless you live in Tornado Alley, of course, and twisters keep making off with your roof. But in fiction — and especially at the start of fiction — there’s no place for them. If prospective readers want to hear about low pressure and isobars, they’ll tune into The Weather Channel.
Does it really matter whether it’s raining or sunny when your heroine unexpectedly walks out on her husband of twenty years? Well, maybe it does at some point in the story, but you can get to that later. Right at the start, what’s important is that she walked out at all . . . and what made her do it. The prevailing weather conditions are irrelevant.
Naturally, all writing rules are breakable and I encourage you to do so at every opportunity. For example, if your heroine walks out dressed in thermal undergarments, snow boots, and a fur-lined parka, perhaps then you might mention that it was a sunny day. But even then, it’s not the weather that’s important; it’s the incongruity of her attire that matters and your reader will be interested to know why she’s dressed like that, just as they might be if she left the house in a bikini on a dark and stormy night.
When you find a weather report on your opening page — however oblique — cut it. Don’t mess about or prevaricate or try to convince yourself that it’s Important to the Plot. Cut it. And then, like a tornado, move on.
2. Waking and dreaming
When readers come upon a story that begins with a character waking up, they know they’re in for a pretty turgid few pages. A few pages if they’re lucky. Because what usually follows is an interminable description of the character contemplating her bedroom from her bed (frequently including a weather report, as sunlight streams through, or rain patters against, the window) before eventually getting up, getting showered, brushing her teeth, getting dressed, brushing her hair, eating breakfast, and so on and so forth even unto the end of the world.
Most readers will have given up or died of boredom long before she encounters her sunny-side-up eggs, so when you find your story opening with this kind of thing, chew it from the manuscript with your bare teeth and ingest it.
Instead, think about what happens after your heroine completes her morning routine. Does an actual story break out? Does she, in fact, don her parka and unexpectedly leave her husband of twenty years? She does? Then that’s where you should start. Forget the showering and brushing of teeth. We’ll just assume she came to consciousness in the usual manner and her personal hygiene is not lacking.
Start your story where the story actually starts.
There is, however, a subset of the ‘waking up’ category that is even more heinous: the ‘dream opening’. I urge you never to begin a book with a dream sequence (and to think very carefully about including one anywhere in a book). Most readers consider it cheating and if they can’t trust you to tell the story properly from the start, why should they trust you to tell it properly at all? It’s a lazy way of generating intrigue and tension, and whatever drama you might manage to wring from it evaporates as soon as the protagonist wakes in the ‘real’ world. Few things are more frustrating than investing in a character and their unfolding story only to be rudely shown that it’s all false and doesn’t count in the plot anyway.
Don’t do it. Don’t cheat your readers.
3. Planes, trains, and various modes of wheeled road transportation
My heart always sinks a little when a novel begins with a variation on ‘Jane Doe parked her car, sat back in the seat, and thought about John.’ Or maybe she’s on a train. Or a plane. Or the space shuttle. It doesn’t matter. She’s in transit to somewhere, and while she’s doing it, nothing is happening. She’s thinking about John, whom she unexpectedly left after twenty years of marriage, but that still counts as nothing happening.
The problem is, all of this stuff is occurring before the story has even begun, so, to reiterate, let’s begin at the beginning, eh? Let’s begin when she reaches her destination . . . unless that train seat is her destination, because the train is blown off its tracks in the next sentence and the rest of the story is about how Jane Doe survives and whether or not she escapes from the wreckage.
Otherwise, where she ends up is more important than how she gets there (unless, of course, the journey itself is the story) and the reader will quickly lose patience with her ruminations and internal dialogue. It may all be important — vital even — but save it for later. What we want now is story. All the rest can wait.
4. A cast of thousands?
When you’re editing the opening of your story, ask yourself this: how many characters are introduced in the first couple of pages?
If it’s more than one (or maybe two) you might want to take another look at what’s going on. Too many people swanning around at the beginning are likely to confuse the reader, who doesn’t know any of these characters yet — and unless you’re describing everybody in minute detail (you’re not, are you? Are you?) they probably all look and sound alike.
A good story has one protagonist — or one protagonist at a time, anyway — and that’s who you should focus on. No doubt you’ve been exhorted many times to begin in media res and that’s all well and good, but if the bullets are flying and the tires are screeching and characters are running hither and thither, not only will the reader lose track of who’s who, they won’t know which of these characters are important. Especially those who are running thither.
It doesn’t matter how much action’s going on or how deep in it your protagonist is. As long as you stick with them — and them alone — showing it all exclusively from their point-of-view, the reader will know who they’re rooting for and who to follow. Don’t name everybody and don’t try to cram too much in.
If you’re writing a novel, you’ve got hundreds of pages left for all that stuff. Stick to who’s important right now.
This is a contentious one, at least for me, because I sometimes like to start with some intriguing dialogue. But I guess the keyword here is ‘intriguing’ because, yes, in general, it’s not a great idea to start a story with someone talking.
There are two very good reasons for this. Firstly, the reader has absolutely no idea who’s speaking. None. At all. There’s a disembodied voice and nothing more. And if the reader doesn’t know who’s speaking, why should they care what that person is saying?
Secondly, as well as not knowing who is speaking, they don’t know what is being spoken about. It’s a double whammy of ignorance, which is the worst kind of whammy. An unknown person talking about an unknown subject. It might as well be a dog barking.
If you find dialogue when you come to edit your opening lines, take a step back and consider whether it really needs to be the first thing your reader sees. As I’ve noted before, dialogue is vital to a good story because it helps bring your characters to life and fosters that all-important reader identification, so I’m not suggesting for a moment that your opening pages be devoid of speech. Quite the opposite.
But does it need to be your very first line?
There are many more ways of not starting a story. Probably as many ways as there are of starting one. Funerals are a recent fad that I see far too often these days — but how many readers want to be plunged into that particularly level of misery, right at the start? In a similar vein, many modern supernatural/horror stories start with the protagonist’s death, which, frankly, causes me to rend my burial shroud and gnaw at my own limbs in anguish.
Lengthy descriptions and scene-setting, world-building, prologues, physical descriptions of your protagonist (especially if they’re looking at themselves in a mirror), mundane, everyday events — all of these are bad ways to get the ball rolling . . . unless you’re doing something truly original with them.
Of course, for every one of the above examples, I can think of a bookcase-full of novels and stories that do exactly what I’ve advised against and still manage to come up smelling of prickly flowers. But years of practice and study and plain old talking to readers have taught me what generally works and what doesn’t.
So, take what you need from this and apply it judiciously. Only you can know what you want to say and how you want to say it. But edit with these thoughts in mind and you won’t go too far astray.
Because in the end, it’s all about beginnings.