Do’s and Don’ts of Story Beginnings

beginnings

Ciao, SEers. Back in 2018, I wrote a post about story beginnings: tone, character introduction, even famous first lines. Today, I want to take that a step further and talk about some do’s and don’ts that will help you elevate your beginnings from good to great.

Do’s

  • Set up stakes early
  • Use a hooks to reel in the reader, especially one that represents the theme of the novel
  • Establish setting as soon as possible, especially what’s unique about it (if there is something)
  • Reveal the interesting thing about the character’s circumstance (job, disability, whatever)
  • Raise a question in the reader (but don’t answer it)
  • Create conflict that shows what the character wants
  • Show character in a conflict that depicts their problem or suffering
  • Write a first line that establishes ONE THING (and only one thing) for the reader
  • Establish mystery or conflict in the first chapter
  • Use strong, unique imagery
  • Establish voice early
  • Set up an interesting character or relationship via a fascinating fact
  • Use a surprising contrast is it suits your genre (like the clocks striking thirteen)
  • Start with an impactful moment
  • Make reader want to read on

Don’ts

  • Don’t use cliche imagery (weather)
  • Don’t start with dialogue because there’s no context
  • Don’t use cliche action (character waking up)
  • Don’t use a dream sequence as your beginning
  • Don’t try to be ambiguous or use unclear language (You want to introduce intrigue but not confusion.)
  • Don’t do anything mundane (brushing teeth)
  • Don’t do anything too familiar, mundane, boring, or cliche
  • Don’t use confusing language or content

There you have it: the do’s and don’ts of strong beginnings. Did I forget anything. Let’s talk about it.

Staci Troilo bio box

59 thoughts on “Do’s and Don’ts of Story Beginnings

  1. Pingback: The Vanderbeekers Make a Wish — Review – Rosi Hollinbeck

  2. Pingback: #ReblogAlert! #Twofer #ThisWeekOnStoryEmpire & Sally Cronin’s #SmorgasbordWeeklyRoundUp | The Write Stuff

  3. I’m with Mae in that I struggle with the opening pages. Now, I move on and do a rewrite of those scenes once the characters are fully formed and I know more about them! This is a really useful list and excellent advice – especially for those taking on the challenge of their first novel. Many thanks, Staci.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I find beginnings much harder than endings. Endings are hard, as you have to be sure to tie off all the loose ends and satisfy every promise you made. But beginnings are just so wide open. There are so many more ways to mess them up.

      I like what you said about going back to finesse your beginnings after you know your characters better. That’s excellent advice. Thanks, Alex.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve broken a few rules as well. And probably will again. But I agree that the opening line should be an enticing hook. I recall a book I read several years ago that said, “I can’t believe I’m standing in the house where I killed my mother.” Almost anyone would want to read that book.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Great do’s and don’ts, Staci. I have to confess, your warning of not starting with someone brushing their teeth made me laugh out loud. 😂 Brilliant example, even with my aging brain, I’ll never forget that! Well…I hope I don’t. Have a great day – you’ve certainly brightened mine. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • I wouldn’t have included it, but I’ve read books and seen movies where the opening was the protagonist doing something incredibly dull. I guess it was to establish him or her as an everyday, typical person. But that’s too much. Glad you got a chuckle out of it. Thanks, Gwen.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Beginnings are so critical and probably the thing I struggle with the most. I normally go back and rewrite them more than any other section of the book, even sometimes changing my starting point. I definitely like a beginning that raises a question and makes me want to read on.

    Excellent list, Staci!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I do the same. One of my novels underwent no fewer than 60 beginnings. Radically different openings before I settled on one. And I’m still not sure I landed on the right start. I’m a little more decisive now, but I still work on a beginning more than any other part of the story.

      Thanks, Mae.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great lists, Staci.
    I love books that take a well worn cliche and flip it on its head … so refreshing and shows imagination.
    Lately, I’m seeing a whole plot/premise becoming a cliche … that of the remote location from which the characters can’t escape and, of course, no phone reception. And don’t mention the retired detective/agent who can solve a case nobody else can, lols.
    As with so many things in writing, if it’s done well, it’s fun, but otherwise it’s simply overdone.
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  8. These are great dos and don’ts. I like introducing the protagonist in my first sentence and the antagonist on my first or second page. Beginning with a short dialogue can’t be wrong. A dream beginning might put a reader off. Should be avoided at all costs. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Any “rule” can be broken if done carefully and effectively. But often, people who begin with dialogue use long streams of it and forget to introduce the characters fast enough for readers to bond with them. That just leaves readers lost.

      I love that you introduce your protagonist and antagonist so early. I’m sure readers appreciate that. Thanks for weighing in, Florence.

      Like

  9. Great suggestions, Staci. I usually try to show the character’s emotion in some way, but each book has it’s own flavor in the beginning. I admit I’ve used a couple of things off your do not do list with weather or dreams, but in kid’s books. Thanks for a great post!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I knew when I wrote a do/don’t list people would say they’ve used some don’ts. Remember the adage: rules are made to be broken (with the caveat: if you know how and why). I’m sure when you chose to break those rules, you made those decisions deliberately, and therefore, the story worked. It’s when a writer doesn’t know the rule that they don’t know how to pull off those tropes.

      I love that you work emotion into your beginnings. I use a lot of internalization in my work and appreciate when I see that in other stories. Experiencing thoughts and feelings is a great way to get to know the hero immediately. Thanks, Denise.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Dialogue can be a good way to start a story if it’s done well. A brief exchange of dialogue followed immediately by context can set up an intriguing situation quickly. On the other hand, an extended conversation without context would likely fail to draw in a reader.

    Liked by 5 people

    • I agree with you, Audrey. “Brief” is the key word there. A line or two is fine, but authors need to keep it short so readers can bond with the characters. Otherwise, they’ll just be confused. An experienced writer will know how much is too much. A novice may not. I’d suggest not doing it rather than over-doing it, though it absolutely can be done well. But that’s true of all the “don’ts” on the list. Any of the “rules” can be broken if you know how to break them. Thanks, Audrey.

      Liked by 1 person

We'd love to know what you think. Comment below.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s