Most Common Writing Mistakes: Stories That Begin Too Early

If there’s one thing you don’t want readers saying when they pick up your book, it’s “Get to the point already!” Stories have lots of ground to cover in their openings, and authors often feel as if they have to open early enough to give readers time to gather all the essential facts before the action really heats up. But stories that begin too early often suffer from their own set of problems, including tedium, verbosity, and info dumps.

5 Problems With Stories That Begin Too Early

Stories that begin too early are problematic primarily in the fact that they’re flat-out watching-dew-dissipate-in-real-time boring. As Captain Hook says, “Skip the prologue!” Readers don’t want to know about the before-the-story story. They want to get on with the good stuff: the action, the drama, the romance. Bring it on, baby!

When you begin your story too early, you often end up with long scenes full of the following:

1. Characters getting dressed, brushing their teeth, and otherwise going through their daily routines.

2. Characters growing up into the adults they need to be for the real story to take place.

3. Characters talking, talking, talking about their pasts, their jobs, their relationships, and their problems.

4. Characters with no goals—and therefore scenes with no conflict.

5. Characters who have no one interesting with whom to interact.

3 Reasons Authors Fall Into the Trap of Stories That Begin Too Early

The reasons an author may accidentally begin his story too soon usually come down to three:

1. You begin your story without knowing yourself where the story really begins.

As a result, you have to meander around in your story and get to know your characters, their world, their goals, and their friends before you can figure out what’s going on. Nothing wrong with all this meandering, as long as you cut it before your readers have to slog through it.

2. You’re afraid readers will be lost without some background info.

So you pile it into these first chapters, because, after all, where else is it going to go? But readers are smart cookies. They can survive that beginning chapter with surprisingly little info. Kameron Hurley’s gritty and graphic “bugpunk” fantasy God’s War throws readers into the plot with nary an explanation of how her unusual world works. Readers have to pay attention and hang with her for a bit, but the story eventually makes all things clear.

 3. You feel the need to fill in time gaps.

I once edited a book that featured an orphan boy as the protagonist. The main part of the story took place in an orphanage, but the story itself begins with the boy’s mother abandoning him, as a baby, alongside the road. The author could easily have chosen to share the intervening years in several build-up chapters before he got to the main conflict. Wisely, he realized they were boring and nonessential and cut them out, allowing readers to dive right into the heart of his story.

8 Ways to Recognize if Your Story Begins Too Early

If you’re wondering whether or not you might have opened your story too soon, ask yourself the following questions:

1. What’s gripping about the first line? How about the first paragraph? The first chapter?

2. Does your protagonist have a goal in the first scene?

3. Is that goal met by conflict?

4. Does the protagonist have another interesting and plot-crucial character with whom to interact?

5. Do you spend an inordinate amount of time introducing your character’s personal routine or discussing his past?

6. Are you bored?

7. Are your beta readers bored?

8. What is the first event in your story that excites you? Is it in the first chapter?

A negative response to any one of these questions probably won’t spell doom for your opening. But if you find yourself nodding your head over more than two or three, you might want to think about getting out your editing scissors and cutting the boring filler so you can concentrate on the real fun stuff of your story’s beginning.

Tell me your opinion: What event in your opening chapter excites you?

Most Common Writing Mistakes Stories That Begin Too Early

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Siegmar Sondermann says:

    Hi,

    my beta reader, who is by far a better writer than me, says, that from the first draft one oftentimes can delete the first paragraph or even the entire first scene, because it has merely served as a warmup for the writer.
    Whenever I followed this hint, it improved my stories.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s a good tip. It’s always valuable to look at the beginning of our stories. How much could we delete (paragraphs? pages?) and still have the opening make sense?

  2. I love this topic! The first book I wrote was like this. I gave so much background information in the first chapter that wasn’t necessary. Luckily my plans for my next story passed the test this time!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The good thing about this mistake is that it’s relatively easy to correct. All we have to do is cut the filler from the beginning, so the story opens where it should.

      • Coming back to this article later, I really liked having this reminder. One of my beta readers told me that I just had too much at the beginning of the story. So I changed it. Another one (who is reading the updated version) says she loves how the story starts at the beginning. I feel a lot better about my beginning now.

  3. Great points! I think sometimes we as writers want to spell out everything for our readers, not quite confident they’ll be on the same page as us if we don’t.

    My first novel starts with the protagonist venting to a friend that she’s not happy in her marriage, and then she arrives home to discover her husband’s been cheating on her. I tried to keep the daily routine details to a minimum, because while the idea of them is important to how she feels, the specifics aren’t. Saying “She stopped by the library and the grocery store before heading home” worked much better than detailing her side trips.

    My second novel starts with the protagonist getting chased by school bullies, into a shop where he meets a strange man who gives him a genie in a bottle. I purposefully left out lots of details about the shopkeeper (they’re revealed as the story progresses) to hook the readers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes we, as writers, can be in such a hurry to share all the good stuff with readers that we forget that they like to be teased a little. The longer we can wait before sharing important details, the more excited readers will be to discover them.

  4. This has to be the most common writing triage there is. We all need to define “the real story,” and your checklists do so much to narrow it down. Routines and growing up don’t cut it–unless that growing up has enough of the goal and conflict (and key people, always a good sign) to bring things to life.

    I think the key might be Change: the “story” really starts when it can show, if not the character’s life being knocked off-course, at least the right components that show how clearly it could change, starting right now. Imperial Stormtroopers marching through his peaceful hometown are good; letting the troopers almost arrest his father is better. Or growing up could work, if it got enough mileage out of hard training, character conflict, or other things–and it always showed that what surprises happen there shape what’s to come.

    Maybe the best guide is your question at the end: when do we start to get excited? And if it isn’t right near the start, it probably does mean the rest was just us searching to write that moment.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve learned to listen to my own interest level. If I’m bored writing a scene, what in tarnation makes me think readers won’t be bored reading it?

  5. You make a good point. We don’t always need alot of details and backstory. I can think of one well known author in particular who, while she writes some awesome stuff, has this pretty much down to a formula. Gives us a day in the life of the MC, throws him into trouble, gets him into a new ‘normal’, fast forwards a few years/months, and then works us into the climax. Good story, but alot of it could be pared out, or some variety thrown in.

    I hope what I’m planning with my book works. My main character’s ended up in charge of a group of people trying to reunite an old spacegoing empire, and is about to find two women in cryo who come from the time that empire was at its peak. Planning on starting with him getting woken up just before the flagship sets down on the planet he’ll find these women on. We’ll see how it works.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like a prime opening spot to me. But the great thing about all this is that we have the freedom to experiment. If we write the beginning one way and it doesn’t quite work, we can always try again.

  6. This is good advice. The part that has the most meaning for me right now is “what’s gripping about your first line/paragraph/chapter?” I’ve come to realize that my WIP begins a bit too early and am eager to fix that in revisions.

    Ironically, for the next novel I plan to write, I’ve realized that where I was thinking about starting it is a bit too late – that there needs to be at least a bit of explanation. Finding a story’s true starting point can feel like trying to hit a moving dartboard sometimes!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      No kidding! It’s all about balance. And the fact that beginnings have *so many* elements to be balanced makes it very tricky. Not to mention that the balance is a little different in every story!

  7. I’m on the second draft of my WIP, and I cut a whole chapter going from first draft to this one. Because of my genre, you can start after the inciting event, or before, and I prefer the latter, but not by much. Just having my male lead come on with the first lines of the book gets me going, and I love the banter that I start out with that gives the reader an idea of the relationship between my MC and her partner. It doesn’t take me long to get to the inciting event, which I think is key in the mystery genre.

  8. This is just what I needed. The dos and the don’ts are precious and are going to serve me well. Thank you so much!

  9. I love the “watching-dew-dissipate-in-real-time-boring” illustration. Exactly right! 🙂

  10. Whether or not the scene is meandering is going to depend on the content. The character always needs to have a goal (which is met by conflict), and it’s particularly important the the opening introduce elements that will be important throughout the story, even if the protagonist’s life is about to radically change from some unforeseen event.

  11. Wise words. We will all do well to heed them. Thanks for another useful post.

  12. Hi
    Great post, thanks. I loved the ‘dew’ comment 🙂
    My books seem to follow a similar pattern to my blogs, in that the first paragraph can just be cut without even reading it!
    I think the fear is always that without context, the reader has little reason to care about the character. Diving straight into the action can be fun, but if the reader isn’t in some way invested in the protagonist, it can fall flat.
    The challenge is about putting just enough in there to create that empathy, without slowing the pace or losing interest. A great challenge! 🙂
    cheers
    Mike

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      We can sometimes get distracted by the idea that we have to begin our stories with action – when, really, all we have to do to create a successful beginning is open with a question, implicit or otherwise. If we can pique readers’ curiosity, we’ve got ’em. Simple as that.

  13. Gil Gordon says:

    Your topic came at a perfect time. I wrote my novel’s first draft like a “Once Upon a Time.” Boring. I’m rewriting throwing out the Prologue and first chapter. Although I found it difficult to jump into a vexing situation for the protagonist without explanation, it is simple to do. What’s hard is to know when and how detailed the back story should be introduced. I would appreciate any suggestions .

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You might find these posts on backstory useful. Basically, the best rule of thumb is “Don’t share backstory until readers *need* to know it. Until then, just tease them with hints.”

  14. I don’t remember who said it, but some well-known writer advised, “Throw away the first two chapters after you’ve finished the first draft.” I like stories that start like this one: “The gunshot clipped splinters from the post an inch above his head . . .”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s definitely a nice reminder to at least evaluate those opening chapters to discover their true worth.

  15. I agree with Joe, its sometimes best to start “in media res” (or in the middle if I’m not speaking Latin :)). You’re immediately in the action and you have an opportunity to start telling your story (though you have to temper this with surreptitiously telling the backstory)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Starting with action (literally) is often a great approach, but it has to be paired with a strong sense of character, so readers will *care* about the action.

  16. I like to take a page from the TV cop shows. Start with the story now, then introduce the backstory as needed. Someone will find something that triggers the backstory, or someone will say something that requires an explanation. This way, it comes out in bite-sized pieces, instead of a big explanation.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a good example. *All* stories should be mysteries in the sense that their true heft becomes visible only slowly. Just as the detectives discover the truth about the victim piece by piece, we should allow readers to discover all of our characters that way.

  17. Love this! The questions at the end brought to mind my current project where you’re introduced to the protagonist without even knowing his name. And (due to in world issues) he’s wrapped from head to toe in cloth bandages, so all you know is he is really tall. He is also in chains and tries to make an escape right away. It’s an exciting fight that showcases his versatility in battle.

    Personally, I love stories that start out like that 🙂

  18. In my story, I don’t really have the problem of having started to early. I feel like I haven’t started early enough. The hook I have feels a lot like the inciting event. My protagonist can’t really turn back after the events I start off with, not without great risk. How can I tell if it starts too late?
    And thanks for posting these! I’m learning so much more in just a few days from reading your posts than I do in a year of school.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hmm, I just realized I don’t have an article on that subject. I shall have to correct that! For now, I’d say your instincts should be your top guide. If the story isn’t working structurally (i.e., you don’t have an Inciting Event at the 12% mark), then that’s probably a very good sign you’ve started too late in the story. The first eighth of the story is all about setup. You have to give yourself the space to introduce the character and his personal dilemmas within his Normal World.

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