5 Steps for a Killer Story Beginning

I’ve heard again and again from agents, editors, publishers, and literary magazine readers how absolutely crucial it is to have a killer beginning to your story. If the first few pages are great, readers will often be willing to slog through a slow middle; and they’ll be far more likely to recommend it to other people. You only get one chance for a first impression, so be sure to tackle your beginning with everything you’ve got. Here are five things just about every killer beginning needs.

ACTION

Too many mediocre stories begin with a long meandering morning, or a dry reflection on what the story means or what the character’s personality is. Instead, we need a strong moment of action to get pulled into the story. It doesn’t have to be a guy leaping from a helicopter as it explodes, but it should be something visual, strong, and striking — a character making a surprising decision, or a moment of subtle violence (cutting oneself while chopping vegetables, or almost getting in a car accident). Any action that gets the reader’s attention is welcome in a story’s beginning, as long as it matches the tenor of the rest of the story.

CHARACTER

This is probably the most crucial element of a story, and so it should be emerging strongly in the beginning. Too many beginning writers begin by describing an empty setting, like the house without a mention of who lives there, or what a beach looks like with no mention of who will be tanning on it. In reality, these settings might be beautifully described, but we don’t read for the setting — we read for a person’s interaction with the setting.

After the jump: three more things your beginning needs to be a killer one!

VOICE

A beginning needs to give a reader a sense of what kind of story he is reading. Use your beginning to establish what your voice will be throughout the piece. Voice acts as the ringmaster in a circus. It sets the tone, welcomes you in, and gives you a taste of what’s in store. Without that feeling of being cared for, a story feels blank and lifeless. The voice ushers you in; use your beginning to establish what kind of welcome you will give the reader.

PROBLEM

This is one of the things writers often forget to include in their beginnings. They’re often nervous in the beginning, testing the waters with a toe, trying out this and that. They want to explore the world and learn about it a little before introducing a problem, but this is a big mistake. It’s fine for your first draft, but in your second draft there should be a certain reason for the reader to turn the page, something that makes him anxious for the welfare of the characters. This anxiety is not only suspenseful — it also makes readers like a character more and want to cheer for him or her.

ANOTHER CHARACTER TO INTERACT WITH

Here’s one that writers often forget. They might introduce a compelling character who has a problem, but they leave him in a vacuum with no one to talk to or interact with. We don’t see how he acts around other people or what his social life is like. In order to learn about a character, we need to see how he acts with at least one other person. If you have a character too stuck in his own head, the story will not seem dynamic. So give your character a buddy or an enemy or even a mailman to shoot the breeze with — just someone to get him interacting, thinking, and speaking.

Just about every successful beginning makes use of these five elements. Make sure your story isn’t left in the slush pile and give it what it needs to knock a reader’s socks off!

7 comments

  1. JoAnn says:

    Thank you for the pointers and more importantly, validation that I am on the right track with my novel’s progression. I worked very hard on the beginning and was quite pleased that my first draft has incorporated all the the points you mentioned. I only hope that fourteen pages isn’t too much exposition.

  2. Great ideas for writing. I write children’s books. The character is central to the story. Conflict for plot driven stories too. I am struggling with the plot of a cyber novel I’m writing. Check out my blog.

  3. Glenita says:

    For my first novel I’ve been spot on. Thank you for the site you created. It has encoureged me to continue with my writting. This helped me see that my beginning chapter is in line with all your suggestions, and will be spell binding. Thanks again

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