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Off with its head!

A headless statue with the title 'Off With Its Head - Starting a Story Too Soon'.

As a writer and as an editor, a common issue I see with stories, however long or short they are, is that they don’t always start in the right place.

On extremely rare occasions, they start too late in the piece, though that’s often remedied with a flashback (that old trope of a flashy opening followed by “…24 hours ago…”).

Far more often, the problem is that the writer has started the story too soon.

What the hell does that mean?

A story can be said to start ‘too soon’ when it begins before the actual subject matter of the story begins. While it’s true that the reader wants to get to know the characters before they are tested in the fires of fate in your tale, neither the reader (nor your editor) wants to wade through a chapter of prose dedicated to describing backstory, household routines, or a precis of their looks and habits. These are all things that can be revealed, as relevant, as the story unfolds.

Where should the story begin, then?

Generally speaking, your story should begin at a moment of, or just before, transition. It should be an active beginning where your character is doing something, interacting with someone, or responding to an external action.

One of the chapters Wording (subscribe to the newsletter to get a free copy of that!) talks about “action vs active” when starting a story – and notes that ‘active’ is more versatile concept.

An ‘active’ scene might contain some physical action, but more importantly it will be active in the sense that something is happening that provides contrast, tension, and questions that can only be answered by reading on.

An active scene might indeed involve a character making a cup of tea – but that scene will have to bring in thought processes, contrasts or questions that go far beyond the tea. Perhaps the character doesn’t usually make their own tea, which leads the narrative to explaining why. Perhaps something about the tea smells funny. Perhaps the character is thinking about how a beloved grandparent taught them to make tea and reminds them of loss. Perhaps by the end of the scene, the character has dropped dead from the poisoned tea that smelled funny.

It can often be more active to begin a story with dialogue rather than long descriptions, so you have the dynamics of two (or more) people interacting. Dialogue can reveal so much about personalities, and falls nicely into the ‘show, don’t tell’ ideas. Don’t simply tell us what they are like in the prose – launch into your story by demonstrating who these people are in the ways that they speak to each other.

First draft scene-setting

Having said all this, sometimes it’s inevitable that the first draft of your story will start too soon, with all this prose description of backstory and personality. That’s all right. In the first draft, we’re often telling the story to ourselves first, and getting a handle on who these characters are and where they’ve come from.

Just keep in mind that once you have a grip on those details, you need to revisit that start. If it’s reading like the FBI dossier, full of facts and figures and long paragraphs of story that isn’t telling this story, chances are it needs to be lopped off. Any truly vital information can be woven in at later stages (not even in the first few chapters – opportunities exist all through a manuscript to drop in important information well before it feeds into the denouement).

But what’s wrong with all that back story?

Backstory is great. It’s often necessary. Describing a person is good too, though they can often be revealed better through their actions and words.

The main reason is that front-loading your story with a core-dump of background information and a character sheet is… well… very dull.

People don’t want, or need, to read 30 pages of a dossier before getting to the meat of a story. Readers and editors both want to step into your world at the moment just before change begins. They want to be there for the inciting incident, but they don’t want to wait till chapter 4 to find it.

Help. I don’t know where my story really starts.

The true starting point of the story can be in many different places, depending on genre, theme, character and writer. As noted above, however, it’s good to look at an event that occurs just before the big changes come. That might be a quiet moment in which a small ripple is the harbinger of something more. It might be smack in the middle of an action sequence. It is often somewhere in between those things.

The key is to look for a scene which provides (here’s the mantra) contrast, tension and questions.

If you’re still stuck, take some time to read the first chapters of some of your favourite books/short stories and consider: how is the beginning ‘active’? How does it create contrast and tension, and what questions does it raise that will have to be answered before end of the story? (And what other questions might those answers raise in turn?)

Then consider how those different techniques might be used to create dynamic, active beginnings to your own works in progress.

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3 thoughts on “Off with its head!

  1. I’d go so far as to say this is perhaps one of the very most common issues with books – they start tooooo soon!

    And sometimes even experienced writers aren’t immune…if we’re lucky enough to fall in love with our characters we want to wax lyrical about them!

    1. I’ve certainly started too early on several occasions. Eagle-eyed editors (hello there) have easily spotted it and then helped me find the right place. This is why your editor is very much your friend. 😀

      1. Absolutely definitely. Aside from the occasional bad egg (which exist in all professions), editors are always, always on the writer’s side…I wish more writers understood this!

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