We’ve talked about choosing the next project. We’ve talked about first lines and getting started. But one of the more common mistakes writers make (or so I’ve read) is starting the story at the wrong place.
I did this with a novel. On the sixth draft, my readers suggested cutting the first chapter entirely. (When you get the same comment from multiple readers, that’s generally an indicator to pay attention, because probably what you intended isn’t coming across.)
The novel’s problems stemmed from more than that. I wrote the rough draft before I really learned about basic story structure, so in my mind I had constructed this unwieldy idea of what the story must be about to make it all work. And that construct required that first chapter.
That should have clued me to the some of the story’s more grievous faults, but optimism and impatience can be blinding.
This is the novel I am now in the process of rewriting. Nothing like that old first chapter even appears, and the whole is so much stronger for it.
To hopefully spare you a similar pain, here are some of the warning signs that maybe you’ve begun in the wrong place (though this is by no means an exhaustive or universal list):
- A time jump between the beginning and the bulk of your story (unless such jumps happen throughout). Prologues are a strange and special case and worthy of their own post.
- A dramatic location change. The first chapter in my novel was set in Seattle, then it moved to Japan in chapter two and never came back.
- Characters – especially named – appearing in the beginning and never again.
- If the whole purpose of the beginning is to get in some backstory, remember that old trick of starting everything – scene, chapter, book – as far into the action as possible. Maybe you’ll find you have to back out some so readers aren’t entirely lost and confused, but you’ll know the heart of the action.
Have some tips to add? Have any tales to tell about starting in the wrong place? Please let me know in the comments!