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Readers take a leap of faith when they begin reading a story. They open the pages hoping to be pulled right in and carried along. So, how do writers do that? With character, voice, and often, action.
P.G. Wodehouse says, “The thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start.” Just because he writes a lot of tongue-in-cheek prose, doesn’t mean he’s joking here. But what is he talking about? In my opinion, it’s where you start with your character. We don’t need his bio on page one—her whole backstory in chapter one. We start with where things are different for the character. We jump in close to the action.
Does that mean there won’t be description of the setting? Not blocks of it, at least. I like how Susan Hart Lindquist says it, “Present setting from the inside out. Make your character react to it if you can...above all, have a reason for mentioning something.”
The whole story really should be written from the inside out. Everything through the character’s voice, motivations, world view, beliefs, prejudices, experiences, etc. For example, I hate the smell of cigarette smoke. If I was writing about my experience of someone lighting up near me, the smell is something I’d definitely mention and not in a positive way. If your character is used to people lying to him, that will slant how he reacts to anything anyone says to him.
I’m reading a book right now and even though it started with a character, it jumped quickly into some political background for the culture (it’s a sci-fi). It came back to the character, and then the next chapter was another character, well, an artificial intelligence. I almost stopped reading, but persisted a few pages and now am hooked. We don’t want to give readers a reason to stop reading by doing too much backstory or explanation, or in my opinion, changing viewpoint too often.
Here are some resources on story beginnings:
10 Ways to Start Your Story Better by Jacob M. Appel
12 Ways to Start a Novel by Darcy Pattison
20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of Your Story by Mark Nichol https://www.dailywritingtips.com/20-great-opening-lines-to-inspire-the-start-of-your-story/
Components of a Good Opening Scene by Joseph Bates
Dynamic Beginnings: Getting Your Story Off to a Great Start by Will Greenway
How to Write Great Story Beginnings from Creative Writing Now
What NOT to Do When Beginning Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.