First impressions count in this world, however unfair we may feel about it. Just ask agents and editors, who look at those first lines and decide if they will keep reading or not.
Most folks think the beginning of a story starts with the first page of Chapter One, because that’s where the book starts. The real answer is: not always.
Find Your True Starting LineOften the beginning of the story and the beginning of the book are two different locations.
Trust me, agents and editors know the difference. (This is a good reason to have beta readers and critique groups.) It’s a complaint I’ve been hearing for years from agents and editors: “the book starts in the wrong place.” They may even put down a manuscript after the first page. They are not interested in waiting till page three or five or 10 for the story (read "energy" or "momentum" or "tension") to get going. Rattle the reader’s cage early!
Many studies have been performed on readers at bookstores who pick up a book and review the first few pages, then either put it back down, or carry it to the checkout line. So don’t underestimate the power of your beginning when it comes to selling your work— it’s your first impression!
Cut Out the Fluff
Many newbie writers start a story too late or too early. Professional authors start their stories with key elements in mind:
- Which key scene sets the ball rolling toward climatic action by Act 2,
- What angle/style is the most effective way to engage the reader, and
- Who starts the story and why.
In other words, good storytellers start with something impending or life altering and, typically, the character most affected by it.
So how can you identify when your story really starts? That’s complicated. Let’s use an example...
Jump into Live Action
True crime and thriller author, Anthony Flacco, gave an example at a conference about a writer he’d advised. The man was starting his book with a trial scene with the lawyer making his opening arguments about a murder. Basically, the main character was summarizing the heart of the story. A story he was not present to experience. In other words, he's telling, not showing.
Flacco had advised the author to start with the scene where the crime was actually happening. “Get us involved in the gritty action,” he told the man.
Flacco’s reasoning was that by the time the trial occurs, all the critical events and heat of the story have passed. The fire literally has been burned out. It’s harder for the reader to start with a stale scene of testimony—the speaking about what happened in the past (i.e. passive events), than to be thrown into gripping action scenes.
By doing the later, the reader can care about the victim, hope that the villain gets caught, and desire justice to be done. All because the reader went through the trauma themselves, so they salivate for a juicy trial scene that nails the bad guy. That's a great start.
So go forth and rattle the cage, my fellow authors!
Your Editor Devil.