Writing the beginning to a story is hard. There are so many things that have to be just right. Are you starting your story in the right place? Will it grab the reader’s attention? Is there too much detail and description or not enough? Is there conflict? But most of all, will your beginning make the reader want to keep reading to chapter two and beyond?
One of the problems a lot of writers run into is where they start their story. Every story and character has a background and the writer knows this world so well and they want to share it, so the reader can experience everything the writer intended. However, too much detail about the setting or character can slow down the story. The reader doesn’t need to know everything the character has done leading up to the starting point, weave it into the story. Too much setting has the same potential to slowing down the story. Give enough setting to make the story come to life and let the reader feel as though they’re with the character. If the first five or so pages consist mainly of describing the school and playground where the main character attended fifteen years prior, that’s a good clue that rewriting may be in the near future.
A lot of craft books talk about creating conflict and showing what’s at stake. That’s something that’s extremely hard to do in the first few pages, because a lot of times, the character doesn’t know enough about their situation to realize what’s at stake, unless you’re writing a crime novel that starts off in the middle of a burglary gone bad. With bullets flying and a police chase, we can all see what’s at stake. However, most other genres don’t have this luxury. The writer has to be creative and come up with ways to integrate it into the beginning without being so blatant. Though, of course, there are exceptions.
Research has shown that if a reader reads through the first paragraph, they’ll read the first page. After reading the first page, if you’ve kept their curiosity they’ll continue through the first chapter. If the story holds their interest and they want to know what happens to the characters, they’ll read the second chapter and beyond. This is what every writer wants, someone to read their book from start to finish because they genuinely care about the characters and their situation. If large blocks of description interrupt the flow of the story, they’ll skim over it. Use dialogue to interrupt description. Move the story along. Go for emotional impact. Create a connection between your readers and your characters, give the reader a reason to care what happens, particularly in the beginning.
I think we’ve all read books that don’t follow the rules. I know that I tend to skim if there’s more than a few paragraphs of nothing but description without a break. It doesn’t matter what it’s describing; a dress, a new car or a high school. Unless you’ve got a killer description that somehow becomes a character in and of itself, it doesn’t move the story along. It lets the reader see what you see, but you can lose them if you don’t pick the story up again. Remember to show, not tell.
A few little things that you can watch for are:
- Overuse of adverbs – examples are lazily, slowly, happily, etc. Show in your dialogue instead of telling the reader what and how the character responds. A few adverbs are fine, but if every dialogue tag has one, that may be something to watch for.
- Pacing and flow – does the pace of your story make sense? Does it flow from one scene to another? Is the reader going to have and stop and go back to see what happened? For example, if your story starts with a daydream, will the reader know when real life comes back into play?
- Give life to your settings. Make the reader feel a part of the world you’ve created. For example, “it was a small town, like any other.” Umm… I’ve been to lots of small towns and they were all different. Give the reader a little more to go on, weave it into the story with dialogue and action. Keep it moving.
- Keep your dialogue clear. Show the personalities of your characters. Make sure the readers knows who’s talking. Make them interesting and let them fly.
In doing research for this post, one of the most common things I read was that the first five pages can make or break your manuscript. I guess I’m not surprised considering one of the books I use frequently is Noah Lukeman’s, “The First Five Pages.” He’s a literary agent and his book is quite helpful when zeroing in on problem areas. I’d highly recommend it.
As part of the workshops that we’re offering this month, I’m going to offer critiques of the first 500 words of your novel or work in progress. If you’re up for it, copy and paste the first 500 words (give a take a few, if you need to finish a sentence or paragraph, feel free) in the comments section and myself or one of the other lovely Hugs and Chocolate writers will critique your work. Please tell us your genre and feel free to ask any questions that you may have, we’re here to help you.