Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I’ve seen this numerous times. Young writers who don’t quite know where to begin their stories. They slip in a prologue that is nothing more than backstory, or a litany of description of the characters and the surroundings and call it chapter one. OY!

While now it is easy for me to see where a manuscript, particularly a romance, *should* begin, it wasn’t always so. It really is something you learn. You learn that backstory is not front-loaded but woven. You learn that introducing a character is all about being intimate with their GMC *before you begin the story*. And you learn that the first scene should play hard and fast with establishing the voice of the character as well as establishing purpose.

Let’s look closely at what I mean. I’m dragging out my very first manuscript to use as an example. This story centers around a young man out for revenge (Goal). His first hurdle is he has no idea where to find the man he thinks murdered his wife(Conflict). Motivation for him to pursue the killer is evidenced in this, chapter one, scene one, by his love for his young wife and that she carried their unborn child at the time of her death.

Krystoff Worthington’s long fingers slid over the book’s scarred leather, the cracked cover reminiscent of his shattered life. The slim volume fell open on his lap. He thumbed through the pages made buttery soft from wear, tattered around the edges, ripped in some places, stained in others. But the words were still visible. He could hear the melodic tones of Meg’s voice as she’d read each poem aloud the night he’d presented her with the book. Krys fanned the pages, longing to savor some new hint of her presence—perhaps the smell of lilacs or the sight of a stray hair fallen from her auburn locks. He envisioned her in the wing chair the rare first edition—his Christmas present to her—spread on her lap. All an illusion. Now, the odor rising from the pages was one of mustiness and neglect.

Krystoff shut the book, resisting the urge to read the spidery script inside the front cover. He’d committed the words to memory long ago. But like a great black bat, its message flitted through his mind, a mocking litany of happier times. The sound of her laughter. The warm light of Meg’s eyes as she placed his hand on her still-flat stomach. “A boy or a girl, darling?”

What I’ve attempted to do is give a glimpse into his character and the dilemma in which he finds himself. I give only the slightest hint of setting, gunning more for mood. While his goal is not expressed outright, I’m setting the tone so that the reader instinctively understands there is a problem and, by the end of the chapter, where the problem is going to lead our hero.

I often see new writers express a goal outright. “Bill needed revenge like he needed water.” Yet this is telling and we all know that telling is not a good thing. At least, not always a good thing, but in this case it definitely is not. You want to draw the reader in. Intrigue them with the events taking place and build the world (setting) in which your characters dwell carefully.

A short list of things to consider before beginning:

  1. Begin with an event pivotal to the character. Some refer to this as the inciting incident--that moment when your character is faced with a decision that will lead him/her on a journey. In this case that journey is your story.
  2. Avoid backstory. Unless it is essential to the character’s development (and 95% of the time it isn’t, so don’t kid yourself) no more than a well-crafted sentence or two.
  3. Avoid long passages of description. Just as with backstory, a sentence or two is enough to ground the reader in the setting.
  4. Focus on placing your character in a situation that shows positives of his/her personality. This is especially critical if your character begins as someone not well-liked by others. Even the worst person has redeeming qualities. Having this type of personality display vulnerability can cast a more compassionate light on them.
  5. After showing a positive personality trait or vulnerability, you can lay the groundwork for some not so great traits, just be careful to keep a careful balance here or the reader will hate your character.
  6. Know the GMC for your character and have a firm grip on how they will grow and what events will grow them through the entire story *before beginning!* Those who don’t plot out a character arc first often flounder around for that perfect beginning spot.

What about you? Do you struggle with where to begin your story? How do you resolve the problem? Want to add anything to the list of things to consider?


  1. I had trouble knowing where to begin a story when I first began writing. At the time I thought I had to have a prologue. I realized how wrong I was when an editor pointed out that my story actually began about halfway through the first chapter. I look back at that still unpublished book and treasure it, because I learned a LOT writing it.

    Sandra Robbins

  2. One of my first manuscripts, I hired a freelance editor who told me the first chapter had to go. And part of the second. IT WAS LIKE RIPPING OUT MY HEART!

    I didn't think I could do. I cried. I ranted. I thought the editor didn't know what they were talking about, that they were inherently incapable of what I was trying to do. In the end, I cut the first chapter. And part of the second.


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