If You Can’t Find the Starting Line…

…You probably won’t win the race.

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     Whether we’re talking short stories or novels, it’s crucial that you start your story in the right place.  The first chapter or first hundred words really set a story up.  You have to give enough background information to let the reader know what’s going on, but you can’t give too much.

     There seems to be this balancing point between too much information and too little.

     Going too far one way or another can often prove disastrous.

     To be clear, there are about three different places you can start a story.

     First, you begin a story/novel too far behind the starting line.  When I say ‘starting line’ I’m really referring to the initial ‘action’ part of the story that gets things rolling.  This can be anything from the common ‘stranger coming to town’ theme to a stressed waiter snapping and smacking Mr. Morris in the face with his own Fillet Mignon.

     If you begin writing a story too far behind that starting line, or beginning action, you may almost find yourself trying to kill time.  I used to think this was how all stories should start.  Give a reader a taste of the protagonist’s life before throwing them into some action.  Give them a reason to care about the main character before sending them on a journey.

     But more and more over the past year, I’ve discovered this isn’t necessary.  Or at the very least, doesn’t need so much time spent lingering on it.  You can easily give us an idea of who a person is – at least a rough one – with a sentence or two.  Readers – myself especially – can get bored when all you’re doing is painting a picture of some boring guy’s average day.  We need a little mystery to keep us going.  Don’t give us every detail.  Give us a silhouette to peak our interests and then slowly reveal more information as you string us along in the story.

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     The second place to start a story is too far past the starting line.  I’ve done this once or twice in the past in some short stories I tried to write.  The stories fizzled out, and I originally chalked it up to writer’s block.  But upon further contemplation, I discovered the stories were just started in the wrong spot.  The main action in that character’s life had already been completed.  I found myself writing paragraphs of back story about this character’s past actions while his present life was passive and pathetic.

     To be more clear, I wrote a tale about a vampire’s butler.  The whole story dragged on about the butler’s history of ignoring the abuses and crimes of his boss.  I tried to shove all of this information into too small a space and my readers would often get bored and not feel enough interest to plow through all the much.

     And the last – and best – place to start a story can be on either side of the starting line.  Just not too far away.  You can start with a hook.  An action which makes me jerk my head around for a double-take.  Or you can give me one or two lines of quirky description about your main character.  Something that draws my interest, raises my curiosity, but doesn’t shove the full truth into my face too soon.

     When you’re having trouble writing a story, especially early on, take a look at your beginning.  Does it linger too long on describing your main character’s life?  Or are there loads of back story to be waded through before the reader can sink their teeth into some action.

     You’d be surprised just what kind of advantage starting in the right place can give you.

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This entry was posted in General Writing, Guest Bloggers by Alexis A. Hunter. Bookmark the permalink.

About Alexis A. Hunter

Alexis A. Hunter is a speculative short story writer in possession of a superbly shaped skull. When she's not writing, she can usually be found cursing too much on Twitter or taking too many pictures of her daughter. Her stories have appeared in magazines such as Fireside Fiction, Shimmer, and Apex, among others. To learn more, visit www.alexisahunter.com -- or if you aren't afraid of a few (hundred) f-bombs, follow her on Twitter (@alexisahunter).

2 thoughts on “If You Can’t Find the Starting Line…

  1. Wonderful article! I’m having trouble finding the starting line on one of my fantasy novels. I feel like a prologue is necessary; yet, the first chapter after the prologue is slow. Maybe I need to switch it up and drop both the prologue and the first chapter!

  2. I think I have a tendency to start too late in a story. Like you said, everything is behind the characters at that point, and it’s hard to work with. Though, ironically, I think my problem with my current WIP, the crime thriller, is that I started too early and am now going to have to cut about 13 pages from the start…

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