The beginning. It’s a rough spot for many first drafts. As writers, we routinely place a disproportionate amount of attention on our introductory paragraphs. For good reason. Sometimes we just don’t know where a story is supposed to start. And as a result, beginnings are often the worst writing in an author’s entire manuscript, filled with bad habits that diminish the thematic resonance and overall power of the piece.
When Good Beginnings Go Bad
There are a handful of things that editors and agents consciously dislike in a manuscript, and most readers hate them too, even if they’re not as conscious of them.
Starting your story with your character waking up (from a coma, from being knocked out, from being asleep, etc.) is not only cliche, but boring.
Even worse is when you take your character through their banal morning routine. It’s not interesting. If you start this way, something interesting better be happening and you should have a good reason to start this way.
Like waking up, starting your story with a dream is another cliche and it cheats the reader. We’ve already spent time reading the beginning, only to find out it wasn’t really the beginning. And then we go into the real beginning, which is your character waking up…
Again, you need a good reason to start with a dream. The beginning of the movie, Inception, was a dream, but the dream was an active part of the story and it was interesting. It made sense.
Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character’s merely dreaming it all. Not unless you’d like your book hurled across the room, accompanied by a series of curses. Even though we’re dealing with beginnings here, it also bears mentioning that you should never, ever—not even once just for a little bit— end a story by revealing that all that has gone 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.
We don’t care about your character yet! Get right into the action. Don’t start with an info dump of background information on your character. Sprinkle that information throughout the story.
Too Little Dialogue
One of the primary red flags for many readers 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.
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.
The last thing you want is to stall your reader. Your goal is to write narratives with enough skill that the reader never has to pause to figure out what’s going on, and never 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 you begin with a snatch of dialogue, you should make the meaning and context of the spoken lines clear right out of the gate.
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.
The Problem with Advice on Beginnings
If you’re at all like me, you’ve looked through this list and thought to yourself: “Ok, so I can’t begin the story with waking up, dreaming, back story, too little dialogue, or too much dialogue… So what the hell is left?!”
Whether you intend to include them or not, all stories reveal narrative patterns. Your ability to identify and establish behavioral patterns—to set a narrative precedent and then break that precedent for the sake of building tension and evolving the story—is one of the most fundamental yet widely misunderstood aspects of craft. The writer should always be keen to exploit the reader’s natural hunger for causality, that eternally burning question to discover “what happens next.” Simply put, we look to fiction to temporarily displace us.
Unfortunately, some writers don’t think about these sorts of things. As a result, their writing is an exercise in surface detail; they can offer unique, even compelling characters, framed in a sequence of scenes with clever dialogue and unexpected outcomes, yet there’s a lack of strategy being invested beneath the surface to position and reveal narrative events in such a way that it raises the stakes of the story being told.
On the other hand, you’ll find there are some people who are just good, “natural” storytellers. Typically this means they’re attuned to the blueprint that lies behind a story, and can decode day-to-day events and somehow reformat them into a palatable communicative narrative. You’ll have to learn how to do this too. From the very beginning, writers should establish a structure that both mirrors a story’s internal framework and takes advantage of its natural capacity to surprise and intrigue.
All stories, at their beginnings, need to reveal the presence of anomaly. Life is not a Sargasso Sea of boring sameness. The arrival of the anomalous agent, the revelation that “something different” is out there, this is what causes the narrative to open up and take on new relevance.
That’s your story. It’s the illustration of anomaly, the specific coexisting with the general. “Why is today unlike every other day?”