Wednesday, February 10

5 Common Problems With Beginnings

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A novel’s beginning is under a lot of pressure. It has to introduce the protagonist and characters, setup the world and story, and get the plot moving, all while hooking our readers and making them want to turn the page. With all that setup and introduction, it’s no wonder they often start off wrong, or take too much time to get going.

The only thing tougher than a beginning is the ending. Except for the middle.

If a beginning isn’t working, it’s usually due to not grabbing the reader’s interest, either by lack of a compelling problem, nothing happening, or taking too long to get to the actual story.

Let’s look at five common problems with beginnings:

1. It’s Starting in the Wrong Place

This is probably the most common problem with beginnings, because we’re not always sure how the story unfolds until we write it. What seems like the right start turns out to be general throat clearing and warm up, and our actual beginnings are either several chapters in, or we needed more ramp up to get there.

Beginnings that start too soon: Look for scenes where the protagonist is going through a lot of normal daily routines without a goal, conflict, or problem.

Beginnings that start too-late: Look for a lot of action and characters in dire straits without a clear reason, sense of who they are, or context for what’s going on.

(Here are ways to tell if your novel is starting in the wrong place)

2. It Has Too Much (or Not Enough) Setup

The right amount of setup piques reader curiosity, grounds readers in the scene, and gives them just enough information to understand what’s going on without giving the secrets away. The critical elements are there—an interesting person with an interesting problem who’s doing something interesting about it.

Beginnings with too much setup: Look for scenes full of infodumps, backstory, and too much setting the scene to “get readers ready” for the story to start.

Beginnings with not enough setup: Look for confusing scenes that lack enough information and ramp up for readers to understand what’s happening and why it matters.

(Here’s more on the difference between good setup and bad setup)

3. It Doesn’t Have Enough Story Questions

A story question makes readers want to know more—a intriguing problem, a fascinating character, a bizarre situation, or maybe a literal question, such as the fantastic opening line from Charlotte’s Web: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

Look for scenes that explain everything and hold no secrets back. It’s common to see a lot of telling, infodumps, or backstory in these beginnings, because the focus in on explaining how it all works, not on building the mystery of what’s going on. Things may be happening, but nothing that makes readers curious, or care enough, to see how it turns out.

(Here’s more on adding story questions to your novel)

4. It Has an Unclear or Reactive Protagonist

Confusing or slow-to-start beginnings are often the result of an unclear or reactive protagonist. Readers don’t have a guide in the story, so they’re reading a lot of scenes without context or a point.

Beginnings with an unclear protagonist: Look for multiple points of view with characters all doing things, but no one person or problem is standing out as the main character or conflict of the novel. Since it’s not clear what the point is, or who has the problem, readers can’t tell what they’re reading or who they’re reading about.

Beginnings with a reactive protagonist: Look for a protagonist who is swept up in events and never makes a decision on what to do. Often, they have no personal stake in the plot, they just happened to be the one who ended up involved. Since no one is actively doing anything, no hero emerges.

(Here’s more on writing a strong protagonist)

5. Its Structure is Out of Whack

Sometimes our beginnings are generally working, but they feel either too slow or too fast for the novel’s overall structure. This is a little different than starting in the wrong place, because the right pieces are there, they’re just out of alignment and throwing off the novel’s pacing.

Beginnings that end late: Look for traditional beginning events (inciting event, act one problem, first plot point etc.) that end past the 30% mark of the novel (from a page count perspective). That’s a good indication that there’s too much unrelated information in the front of the novel. Maybe there’s excess backstory, or scenes that don’t move the plot, or even too many of the same kinds of scenes that aren’t serving the story.

Beginnings that end early: Look for traditional beginning events (inciting event, act one problem, first plot point etc.) that end before the 20% mark of the novel (from a page count perspective). Odds are there’s not enough good setup and the story is starting too fast. It’s common to find the inciting event in the opening scene in a too-early beginning.

(Here’s more on story structure)

In many cases, to fix a beginning, we just need to look at the ending. Once we know how the story ends up, it’s clearer where and how it needs to start.

Do beginnings give you trouble?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those    with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter(Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Great article. My books usually start with a bang, hoping to hook the reader. Trouble is... I tend to run out of steam after that.

    1. Having a midpoint reversal helps me with that. It gives me something to plot toward. Maybe it'll help you.

  2. This post is really helpful! Usually I know what to do for the first chapter, but after that, it gets confusing.

    One trick I like to use is the disturbance. Its where you start in the normal world, but at a time where something's different. It's not the I.I., but it might help set it up. Ex. in The Shifter, Nya starts in her normal world by stealing eggs, but its different when she's caught not only stealing but shifting pain as well.


    1. I like that. "The disturbance." Good way of describing it ;)

  3. Super article! I'm in the first few chapters of my story (actually, I just finished writing the inciting event) and I have this feeling that it might be boring for the reader, because it starts with the same day repeating itself three times (Groundhog Day style). To keep the pace interesting, the first is described 'normally' (if there's such a thing), the second I insist on the events making the characters (and hopefully the reader) notice that there is something off, and the third day the inciting event happens. I'm a little worried that the readers might feel stuck into place, so I need to find a way around that.
    Also the part about info dumping in your article talks to me. I'm trying to throw a little bit of foreshadowing by explaining the rules of the world, rules that my protagonist will obviously have to break, and get in trouble with! But it reads a lot like info and backstory dumping. I will have to edit the hell out my first chapters to make it work.
    Thanks for this article, always on point just where we need it ^_^

    1. Glad it helped. That's a tough beginning for sure. My suggestion, would be to have the normal day be fun, or something entertaining on its own so seeing it again isn't as dry. They movie did a good job there. There's also a great Stargate SG-1 episode called "Window of Opportunity" that does a good repeating day trope if you wanted more inspiration :)

  4. Thanks, I'll check out this Stargate episode, and now that I think about it, there is also this episode of Supernatural that uses the same gimmicks. Hopefully I don't fall for cliches, and I'll make sure to make my first day more outstanding as you suggested =)