5 Wrong Ways to Start A Story

how to write fiction | hooked on fiction writingYour story’s opener is your one opportunity to capture an editor’s or agent’s attention. Learn how to avoid the critical mistakes (such as providing too much backstory) that lead to rejection and write a great beginning for your story. Today’s tip of the day, taken from Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers At Page One by Les Edgerton, illustrates the five wrong ways to start a story.

Opening With a Dream

Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character’s merely dreaming it all. Not unless you’d like your manuscript hurled across the room, accompanied by a series of curses. Followed by the insertion of a form rejection letter into your SASE and delivered by the minions of our illustrious postal service. Even though we’re dealing with beginnings here, it bears mentioning that you should never–and I never neverend a story by revealing that all that has gone on before was just a dream. Not unless you enjoy the prospect of strangers hunting you down and doing you bodily harm should such a story somehow find print.

Opening With an Alarm Clock Buzzing

Don’t open with your protagonist waking to an alarm clock ringing, or to someone shaking her awake, or to a cute little birdie chirping from her bedroom window, or to a blazing sun shining through the window.

This is always a groaner for the agent or editor–a beginning in which she’s introduced to the character waking up to an alarm clock ringing or to a clock radio announcing something important, such as the Martians have landed. Such an opening signals clearly to the agent or editor that the writer is about to take her through a tedious and thoroughly dull journey of the character waking, eating breakfast, greeting all the numbingly boring children in the house, and so on. It’s going to be hours before she gets the actual story. Hours she’s probably not going to invest.

The only thing worse than a story opening with a ringing alarm clock is when the character reaches over to turn it off and then exclaims, “I’m late!” I actually saw a movie in which that happened–wish I could remember the title so I could give it its deserved props. An intelligent reader will root for a cruel and unusual death for someone so irredeemably stupid as to set her alarm clock so she’ll be late and is then surprised when it goes off at the time she set it for may actually meet a person of the opposite sex who is equally brain damaged, and the scary thing is that they may have offspring. Resulting in progeny from the shallow end of the gene pool. Now, that’s a terrifying thought!

Being Unintentionally Funny

Don’t write sentences like: “Was she going to come in or stay out on the porch, he thought to himself.” It’s been fairly well verified down through the annals of history that when a human being thinks, he almost always does so to himself, and scarcely ever to another person, unless mind-reading is part of the story. When an editor encounters one of these kinds of sentences, your work is probably going to make her laugh, but that’s not considered a positive reaction in this case.

Too Little Dialogue

One of the primary red flags for many editors and agents is the absence of dialogue on the first few pages of a manuscript. All editors–no matter what the material, screenplay or novel or short story–look for lots and lots of nice white space. Some editors are even known to rifle the pages to see how dense the prose is. (Readers who cover screenplays do this automatically to check for the amount of dialogue in the script–there had better be a lot!) When fiction editors do this and see copy that isn’t broken up much, it tells them one thing–that what they’re about to encounter is likely to be narrative, narrative, and yet more narrative.

Signaling a read that promises to be boring.

And you know what that means.

Don’t quit your day job just yet.

Opening With Dialogue

This kind of opening was popular at the turn of the last century; it looks musty now. The problem with beginning a story with dialogue is that the reader knows absolutely nothing about the first character to appear in a story. For that matter, any of the characters. That means that when she encounters a line or lines of dialogue, she doesn’t have a clue who the speaker is, who she is speaking to, and in what context. That requires that she read on a bit further to make sense of the dialogue. Then, at least briefly, she has to kind of backtrack in her mind to put it all into context. That represents, at the least, a speed bump, and at worst, a complete stall.

You don’t want that! Your goal should be to write narratives with enough skill that the reader never has to pause to figure out what’s going on. That interrupts the fictive dream the reader has willingly entered. Once the read is stalled, however momentarily, it becomes easy to put the story down. Many times, never to return. You want to avoid such stalls at all costs.

There are, of course, certain notable exceptions. A line like: “‘I’d like to make love to Nancy,’ Tom said to his pal Joey, ‘but I’d have to look at her face to do it and I don’t think I can do that.'” A dialogue opening like that may sometimes work. The thing is, if I began with a snatch of dialogue, I’d make certain that the meaning and context of the lines spoken were clear from the git-go.

Also, remember that a character’s thoughts are a form of dialogue–they’re an interior monologue. Just another reason to not open with the character ruminating.

Most times, if not always, look for a better way to begin your story than with dialogue.

This excerpt is from Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers At Page One by Les Edgerton. To learn more about the book, read an excerpt on writing opening scenes. For more resources on fiction writing, we suggest:

Buy Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers At Page One now!

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10 thoughts on “5 Wrong Ways to Start A Story

  1. AF

    I know this is old, but it comes up in searches. I have to comment.

    “When fiction editors do this and see copy that isn’t broken up much, it tells them one thing–that what they’re about to encounter is likely to be narrative, narrative, and yet more narrative.

    Signaling a read that promises to be boring.”

    As a reader, I disagree quite bigly.

    I literally cannot get into a novel without narrative. The “everything dramatized” trend is the biggest thing that keeps me from reading so much modern genre fiction and makes me gravitate towards lit fic, even though I do LIKE things like fantasy. I almost never can get into a novel unless it has a substantial amount of narrative at the beginning.

    That doesn’t mean boring stuff, irrelevant backstory, or weather. I need – NEED – as a reader, to begin a novel with a solid paragraph of something orienting and interesting that rolls me right into the story. I need a storyteller, a narrator. Think the opening of the Hobbit, or the Once and Future King, or The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao, or pretty much anything by Michael Chabon. Louise Erdrich in the Plague of Doves. Victor La Valle in The Changeling. This is how I need a novel to begin. Tell me a story.

    When I pick up a book, and it immediately opens with decontexualized stuff happening, some dialogue, some action packed into quick, one and two sentence paragraphs, and I don’t see any narration, no nice, substantial paragraphs orienting me to what this is all about, I’m out. I’m bored. Nothing is more boring to me than reading a novel which sounds like a script for a TV show. All “show”, no “tell.” Scene by linear scene drama. It is called story *telling* for a reason. I would just watch TV if I want nothing but scene by scene action. Novels can deliver introspection, zig zag through time, delight in sentences and paragraphs, and create a relationship between reader and narrator. This is what I read novels for.

  2. CathySp

    I had heard about the “don’t begin your story with a dream’ advice.
    Then I read Rebecca, in which the whole chapter is a dream. With the first line “Last night I dreamt … ” She didn’t get the memo.

  3. LangiStudios

    Thank you for highlighting the eye roll-inducing ‘s/he thought to him/herself’. Unless they’re in a telepathic conversation with the neighbour, who else is going to hear their thoughts?

  4. desawrites

    My gosh! How happy I am that THIS is the first article I got to read here on WritersDigest.com as I relaunch myself into my writing from a 12 year hiatus. I am feeling pretty rusty and a little intimidated (wondering how much ground I lost). Totally okay for me that I have a LOT to learn now, and years of digging in to study writing and polishing my prose ahead of me…and I felt every word in this article was relevant and inspiring. And funny as hell! Added your book to my Amazon wishlist.Thanks so much for the answers to the first questions I had as I pick up my pen and begin again.

  5. Devorah Fox

    Thanks! I love “he thought to himself.”
    On the other hand, I began “The Lost King” with dialog AND a dream AND waking up AND getting breakfast. So far no one’s reported stopping at page 1 or turning the book into a missile, for which I am every so grateful.


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