I’m so happy to welcome Lily Keith to the blog today with this great guest post. Make sure to check out her blog at the end.
One day, I started editing the first draft of my WIP. Something didn’t feel right, but I wasn’t sure why. So my alpha reader read the first several chapters. Later on, she said, ‘It’s well-written. But it’s boring.’
What happened? The beginning failed to hook the reader.
So today, I want to share a few tips I learned since then on where and how to start your story.
First off, don’t worry about your first draft. Give yourself permission to be terrible and messy! You just need to get that story out on paper (or on screen). Afterward, you can focus on fine-tuning your story.
Tip #1: Make a ‘Late’ Entrance
The problem with my first WIP was that I started too early in the story. For example, I wrote about what happened to my main character three weeks before the real action and conflict began. The opening chapters had no purpose; anything important beforehand could be summed up in a paragraph of backstory.
Many readers have a short-attention span. And they won’t stick around to read irrelevant details that don’t move the plot forward (like what my MC was eating yesterday morning.) But if you begin your story in the middle of the action (or at least, very close to the main conflict), then readers are more likely to keep reading.
For example, The False Prince, by Jennifer Nielsen, hits the ground running in just the opening paragraph:
If I had to do it all over again, I would have not chosen this life. Then again, I’m not sure I ever had a choice.
These were my thoughts as I raced away from the market, with a stolen roast tucked under my arm.
Is there a way to thrust your protagonist into the main conflict sooner?
Tip #2: Try Starting When Things Go Wrong
My writing teachers suggested starting a story on the day when things go wrong for your characters (or at least when things start changing). This is where foreshadowing can come into play. You can hint at the potential danger and build up to the main conflict (just don’t string out the suspense unnecessarily!)
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis is a great example of how a story starts on the day everything is different for the main character.
Here we go again. We were all standing in line waiting for breakfast when one of the caseworkers came in and tap-tap-tapped down the line. Uh-oh, this meant bad news, either they’d found a foster home for somebody or somebody was about to get paddled.
…. “Boys, good news! Now that the school year has ended, you both have been accepted in new temporary-care homes starting this afternoon!”
Can you pinpoint the scene in your story where the character’s world starts changing (or something goes terribly wrong for them?) What happens if you start your story there?
Tip #3: Expect the Unexpected Line
Has a story’s opening line ever startled you? I’ve come across a few that’ve surprised me!
The first line is the bait. Readers look at it and then make the decision to either keep reading, or keep browsing. A strong opening sentence piques the reader’s interest. Now’s the time to make a good impression on the reader.
Consider this opening line from The Hero’s Guide To Saving Your Kingdom, by Christopher Healy:
Prince Charming is afraid of old ladies. Didn’t know that, did you?
No, actually I didn’t. Why is he afraid of old ladies? What else don’t I know about him? Now I want to know! And so will the reader.
As you look over your WIP, ask yourself if there’s a way you can grab readers with a strong line, unusual statement, or intriguing question. Will it align with your story’s tone, your MC’s personality, and your overall plot? If not, don’t worry! It’s best not to force an unusual opening line if it doesn’t fit.
Tip #4: Study Other Books
Studying the opening paragraphs of my favorite books has been super helpful for me (as openings aren’t my strong suit). I usually write them down in a notebook and then compare them.
How did your favorite authors start their story? Each genre has a different style and tone. How do mystery writers open their stories? Fantasy authors? Sci-fi thrillers? Do they use one or all of the tips above? By studying other writers, we can sharpen our own skills and improve our stories.
So, as you’re preparing to edit your story’s beginning, consider how you could introduce your character and their problem, either by starting out in the middle of the action; beginning on the day everything changes for your main character; or settling for a strong opening line. Or you could combine these different tips if it works for your story. It’s up to you!
Beginnings aren’t easy. And they take a lot of work. But I believe you can do it! Pray for strength and perseverance. A solid beginning will draw in readers and keep them turning pages; it’s definitely worth the effort.
Lily Keith never grew out of her love for children’s literature. She has been telling stories all her life, first to her dolls and then to her family, and hopefully to more kids in the future. Aside from writing, you’ll often find her feeding wild rabbits, arguing with spell check on Google Docs, or talking with her imaginary frie- *ahem* story characters. You can connect with her via her children’s blog (well, technically she co-owns it with her sister!) at: https://thepencilsisters.com