19 May 2020

Where To Start?

"You're starting in the wrong place" is something I've told many an editing client. Sometimes authors start their books or short stories too early in a scene, trying to show too much of the normalcy of the world we're entering. It's a good goal, but you can't do too much of it or else you risk the reader becoming bored, waiting for something interesting to happen. So if you start your story too early, you might need to chop off the first few pages. Or chapters.

I recently told a client when I read her sample pages that I didn't know where her story started, but I suspected it wasn't in the first two chapters I had read, which were all backstory. I told another short story author a few years ago that the reader didn't need to see the main character growing up. Let us learn about the relevant parts of her life when they become necessary to the story, but start the tale where the action is. She lopped off the first seven pagesthe first seventeen years of the character's lifeand the story was all the better for it.

Starting in the wrong place is not a problem I usually have myself. I just looked at all my published stories, and in none of them did I ever have to cut off the beginning pages to start the story in the right place. So imagine my surprise when I realized that in the story I'm currently trying to writethe story I began a couple of weeks ago, but the opening scene just hasn't been workingI'd started in the wrong place. I hadn't begun too early in the scene or in the main character's life. I'd started in the wrong place literally. I had the wrong setting.

It was a lightbulb moment. The opening scene hadn't been working because I'd felt the need to show several aspects of one of the main character's personality because of where the action was happening. In that setting, he definitely would be reacting by thinking several thingstoo many thingsand that was causing the pace to be too slow. But now that I've figured out a better setting, I can trim away all those extraneous thoughts and allow the meat of the story to come so much sooner. By starting in the right place literally, I am allowing the story to start in the right place for storytelling purposes too.

As SleuthSayers columns go, I know this is pretty short, but I hope my insights will be helpful to you as you write. And I'd love to hear your thoughts about starting out your stories, both how you decide where in the storytelling to start as well as where to set that opening scene.


  1. Barb, my most recent short story coming out in an anthology this fall, was started over a year ago. I had a cool idea of an elderly woman going criminal to feed her cat - a story that was just looking for an ending. So I wrote the first half, and waited for inspiration. It took me 12 months to come up with that, and of course it demanded a new beginning. So many times that happens to me: I force myself to start writing because 'you can't fix what ain't wrote' and then come back to the beginning and find a more terrific place to open. I love when that happens! *gets all excited*

  2. I also switched it to a dog - grin.

  3. Of course you did, Mel. Dogs rule!

  4. I took a course once from the British classicist Rex Warner, a really nice man. He told me to throw away the first 4 or 5 pages of whatever I wrote and I'd be a good writer. Excellent advice.

  5. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, legendary film director Frank Capra wrote about test-screening his adaptation of James Hilton's Lost Horizon and being distressed by the test audiences' tepid responses to it. He couldn't figure out how to fix it until a voice came to him in a dream and ordered him to "burn the first two reels." Capra removed the first twenty minutes of the movie and tested it again — and the audience loved it.

    Tom Stoppard pokes fun at the author's tendency to overload the beginning of a narrative with exposition in The Real Inspector Hound, which I heartily recommend to all crime writers.

    Good piece, Barb, with important insight into the importance of beginning right!


  6. Great advice, Barb.

    Donald Maas has an exercise in his Breakout Novel workbook that says, basically, go through your MS and find every bit of description, backstory, setting, and anything else that sets up the situation that in the first fifty pages. Then cut and paste all of it to CHAPTER 15. His point is we have to care about the character's predicament more than we have to know how she got there...at first.

    I usually tell people in my workshops that if you need a flashback in a short story, you're sequencing wrong. That may be exaggerated, but they seem to get the point.

  7. You're right on the money, Barb. Start where the action is, and keep moving. Explain as you go. Preferably, let the characters explain as they go by their actions, not by narration. I try. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

  8. Pat Marinelli19 May, 2020 10:37

    Great post.

    I almost always start the story in the wrong place and have to go back and cut the beginning. Since I know the problem, I can fix it. First draft is when I really get to know the character and setting. Knowing I have this problem makes it so much easier to write a second draft. Every once is a while, I get my story right on the first draft, I love when that happens.

  9. Very helpful and informative! Thanks!

  10. This was a lesson you taught me more than a few times, and I suspect I need to apply it again on my current project. Thanks Barb! Bill

  11. Changing the opening setting to launch a story more effectively. Great food for thought, Barb.

  12. Great post, Barb.
    I have a really hard time changing my openings because that's usually where my story ideas come from. I start with an opening. I putz around through drafts, sometimes for months, and have no hesitation changing anything to strengthen the story, even making major changes, except for that opening.
    But the times that I finally smothered my ego and changed the opening, the story improved 100%. Got to learn to do that more often.

  13. I tested a story with my own grandsons as the BETA readers before I went to a children's writing conference. I didn't get a consensus from these two 'tweens. One said to begin with chapter one and the other suggested beginning with chapter 2!
    You can't win them all!

  14. Good advice, Barb! I think a lot of beginning short story writers take the advice of those who teach about novel writing--start with an everyday day, give background, etc. We know that doesn't work with a short story!

    When starting a new story, I always start with a line of dialogue. Then later, I might remove it. But it helps me get in the moment, in the place where the characters ARE. And hopefully, doing something interesting.

    And Melodie, I love that "You can't fix what ain't wrote." LOL

    bobbi c.

  15. Speaking as someone who has followed your advice re: lopping, I heartily agree. Thankful for the reminder!

  16. "When you write a short story, you have to cut off both the beginning and the end. We writers do most of our lying in those spaces." -Anton Chekhov

  17. Barb, you make an excellent point about an underrated topic. I've added 'professional tips' to your article's keywords.

    Long ago friends urged me to try the Gormenghast Trilogy about the family realm of Groan. I bought the books, fortunately in paperback. The origin of 'Groan' became evident as the first novel opened with a biographical descriptive chapter for each character. My ADD screamed for relief. I gave up, never to return. Gormenghast has many fans, including James Lincoln Warren, but I couldn't get past that much exposition.

    It is said that T.S. Eliot sent one of his epic poems, perhaps The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock itself, to Dylan Thomas for critique and editing. Supposedly Thomas cut out a third, which delighted Eliot. (That grumble in the back of the classroom he could have cut out another third wasn't me, at least not intentionally.)

  18. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by. I'm glad I was able to be of help!

  19. Great advice, Barb. I first heard it in a writer's group, and most of the time followed it. Once in a while, I ease into the story and find I have to cut the beginning down or do away with it entirely after I've written the rest.

  20. Great and excellent advice, Barb.
    A customer gives the first page of your book about 30-45 seconds. You better hook them on the first page or you might lose that sale.
    My most memorable first line in any book is:
    "The last camel died at noon." THE KEY TO REBECCA by Ken Follet. How can you not continue that story? You know when, where and somebody is in deep caca.
    You might not come up with SIX WORDS, but think about it and start at the right place.

  21. Such a good reminder, Barb! I always know when I start in the right place because the story flows, and when I don't ... well, I usually run out of gas pretty quickly. Glad your own story is back on track.

  22. A good reminder. So far, no one has told me to cut anything. Whew! I am starting my third romantic comedy mystery with a different kind of opening. It's almost metaphorical. We shall see...


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