Editing · Writing

Starting in the Right Spot

As a warning, this is all my opinion so don’t go taking it as gospel. Take it as something to think about and consider. Like I always like to remind people of on here, editors can have different opinions. What I’m going to talk about in this post is starting your first chapter! There’s so many examples I could give, but I’m going to stick to some I’ve seen recently. If anyone is willing to discuss beginnings that bug them, comment about it!

Figuring out where to start a story is a struggle I understand. When I write I often find myself skipping the first chapter to come back to later. It’s also the chapter that gets the most rewrites. When it comes to starting a book, give us some world building and character development and then kick off the main plot. Starting too soon could mean dragging the first chapter(s) out too long and boring readers before getting to the meat of the story. Starting too late means running the risk of dropping readers into the thick of the action in a way that confuses them.

I have some advice on things to watch out for and take into consideration when it comes to picking a starting point.

Where to Start?

In most cases you should start close to your inciting incident. Ease readers into character development and world building by giving us enough info to understand the importance of the inciting incident. If you are considering starting out by explaining a lot of backstory, reconsider. Don’t bog readers down in those details. Stick to revealing only what backstory is absolutely needed and sprinkle it throughout instead of in one big lump.

What to Watch Out For

Starting mid conversation. Starting right in the middle of a conversation can be confusing. Readers need to know who the characters are and what’s going on. If your characters are discussing mundane topics, it could wind up being a boring start for readers. If characters get right into discussing the inciting incident and I don’t know enough about the characters or world, I will be confused while I try to make sense of what is happening. This  can be especially bad for fantasy and sci-fi.I’ve read books were I couldn’t get past the first chapter because they were throwing so many new words and places at me without explaining any of it that I couldn’t make sense of what was going on. Right when I thought I understood something, I discovered I didn’t once I reached the next page.

Starting in the middle of the action. Likewise, starting in the middle of an action scene can be confusing for some of the same reasons as starting in the middle of a conversation. Make it clear who your main character is and what is happening. Find a way to ease us into the details without throwing it all at us at once. Some readers have trouble feeling sympathy for characters in danger before getting to know them. We want to have the chance to get to like them first to have reason to care about what happens to them. It makes it easier to sympathize with them and root for them.

Starting with a prologue. Prologues can be a tricky start. In some genres, like fantasy, they become overused. I’ve read a lot of books with prologues that weren’t needed. I often see them being used to slip in a bunch of backstory in an info dump to explain the world before starting chapter one. Sometimes that information is better off being sprinkled throughout the story as readers need to know it. I’ve even read ones that made me expect a completely different story. Last time this happened, the prologue showed the POV of secondary characters, yet come chapter one it switched to the main characters. The book ended up being about different characters than I expected due to the prologue making me think those secondary characters were the most important ones. If you want to use a prologue, make sure it adds to the book and isn’t being used as a convenient info dump or an excuse to start in the middle of some important action scene.

Cliché starts. Beware of cliché starts, like starting with your character waking up. You want to make your story stand out and starting out with a cliché start may give you readers a negative impression. If I read a story with a cliché start, I expect the book to be full of other clichés. If you really want to use one as your start, put a new twist on it. Try to make it unique to your story. Like prologues, if you start with one make sure it’s beneficial to your story and not being used as a lazy start.

Not sure if your starting chapter works? Best way to find out is to have others read it and give you their thoughts on it.



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