A Big Mistake to Avoid in Story Openings

I’ve read countless manuscripts that begin by describing a
character writhing in pain. Mental pain, physical pain, emotional pain,
you name it.

For instance:

John clenched his throat and tried
to stop the flow of blood, but he couldn’t. His skin became whiter and
whiter, and he broke out into a cold sweat. He felt prickles all up and
down his back, and his breathing became intensely labored. He squinted
into the sun and wondered if this was finally going to be it.

[Two
paragraphs later, after more pain description]

He felt certain he was
going to die after getting trampled by a bull moose. He thought about
his life as a whole, and was actually pleased at the thought he’d never
have to suffer married life again.

Writers probably think it is better to dramatize this opening moment of crisis—to SHOW the character in pain or agony.

In
fact, it’s usually better to come right out and tell, and get to the point
quickly. You can grab my attention much more effectively by starting
out this way:

On his 500th hunting trip, it finally happened. John was
trampled by a bull moose. His wife tried calling him while it happened
but he couldn’t reach his cell phone. In that moment it became crystal
clear to him: He wanted a divorce.

This is a VERY extreme
example, but hopefully the point is made. Dramatizing (or
showing) can slow down your first scene to an absolute crawl. It’s hard
to care about any character’s pain until we know that character’s
conflict, motivation, and overall environment.

Later on in the book, when
we’re on the edge of our seat, wondering what will happen to John, because we
care so much about John—that’s the time to show and dramatize, and keep
us in suspense.

Need more help on your story beginning? Writer’s Digest publishes the only book available specifically on how to handle story openings:

Also check out my favorite recent title on novel writing:

Photo credit: Aus Photo

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0 thoughts on “A Big Mistake to Avoid in Story Openings

  1. Jane Friedman

    @daylight – Oh my. It has become almost cliche that authors who are proven (bestsellers) can often get away with anything, and sometimes aren’t open to being edited. (Or simply aren’t edited.)

    It’s all the more annoying for me, since when I tell people this kind of writing isn’t going to help them get published, they point to what’s published, and ask, "Well if they can do it …"

  2. daylight

    Great article.
    It’s amazing to find published books with these kinds of beginnings.

    The first two sentences of Catherine Coulter’s novel, Tailspin, cracks me up.

    [– She thought she swallowed because her throat burned hot, as if splashed with sharp acid, but she wasn’t sure because she couldn’t think clearly. Her mind felt dark, heavy and thick as chains, and she knew to her soul there was violence just beyond it. –]

    [emphasis] "…she knew to her soul there was violence just beyond it." [/emphasis]
    What editor let that slip by?

  3. Jane Friedman

    @Melissa – Appreciate the different POV.

    Typically, I see writers try to explain TOO much, and not give the reader enough credit for being able to pick up on things. Do we really need to be taken step-by-step through a routine or through each action? Think about how a film cuts from one scene to another, and leaves out a ton of information, assuming the viewer will fill in the gaps.

    Of course, you can take this tactic too far, and frustrate or confuse the reader. Definitely there’s a balance to strike.

  4. Melissa Donovan

    I actually like the first example better. In the longer version, the reader can relate to John’s thoughts and how he goes from being attacked by a moose to realizing that he doesn’t want to be married anymore.

    The second example seems disconnected, particularly the middle sentence about the wife calling while the attack is happening. It needs to me more clear that he heard the phone (and somehow knew it was her — some of us still use one ring for all callers) and in that moment he made the big realization about his marriage.

    I guess the second example makes assumptions about the reader. The first is definitely more traditional in terms of exposition. My money would be on some combination of both!

    Thanks for sharing this — excellent food for thought.

  5. Jane Friedman

    @RKCharron & @Ali – So glad this resonated!

    @Darrelyn – LOL. If I were writing this story, John would be divorced by end of chapter 1, then the book would tackle what he decides his life should be like after 30 years of marriage.

  6. Darrelyn Saloom

    Great tip, Jane. And you are right. Your example of John and the bull moose is a much better opener. But I do have one question: Did John get a divorce? 🙂

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