2 Ways to Tell You’re Beginning Your Story Too Soon

2 Ways to Tell You’re Beginning Your Story Too Soon

This week’s video presents two important rules of thumb, one for making sure you’re not beginning your story too soon and another for making sure your first chapter is hooking readers.

Video Transcript:

The beginning is one of the trickiest terrains in any story. There’s just so much we have to juggle for that opening chapter to accomplish all the jobs it’s supposed to. Two of the most important of those jobs are setting the stage for the story and hooking readers.

The hard part of this is that the requirements of these two things often seem completely dichotomous. Important setup information is not always the best way to grab readers’ attention. The necessity of this setup info also sometimes messes with our ability to figure out the best spot in the timeline to begin.

Writers often ask, “How do you tell if you’re beginning your story too soon?”

Today, I’m going to present you with two important rules of thumb for, first, making certain you aren’t beginning your story too soon, and, second, helping you grab readers right off the bat.

Rule #1 for Not Beginning Your Story Too Soon

You’re beginning your story too soon if there is nothing happening in your first chapter.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but it’s not. I just recently read a romantic-suspense novel by a bestselling author that opened with a mega-setup, mega-boring chapter in which nothing happened because this particular scene took place too far before the main conflict began.

Rule #2 for Not Beginning Your Story Too Soon

You’re beginning your story too soon if your opening chapter does not contain the goal/conflict/disaster pattern of proper scene structure.

Really, this is just an extension of the first rule. Why? Because proper scene structure does two things:

1. It ensures something is happening, because…

2. …it demands the presence of conflict.

What you need to do is make sure your opening chapter has your character in pursuit of a goal that will in some way cause or be integrally related to the main conflict he’ll encounter as the story continues. Do these two things, and you can be sure your story will never begin too soon.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever worried you’re beginning your story too soon? What did you do about? Tell me in the comments!

2 Ways to Tell You’re Beginning Your Story Too Soon

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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. For some reason, I’ve never fallen into the trap of beginning the story too soon, although I’ve often restructured.

    But I’ve read tons of manuscripts that have done so. A huge trap for many novices.

    Another great post. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Beginnings are, in my opinion, the absolutely most difficult part of a story. I’ve yet to write an opening chapter I felt was the perfect balance.

      • I agree! I’m always re-writing my beginnings, even if it’s just the first few lines. My WIP of 17 years has been through a huge metamorphosis. And it’s now at the point where the beginning — I like. I feel like I can confidently rework the rest of the story, since I know how it’s going now… It’s bliss!

  2. Thanks for this perfectly timed article. I’m workshopping the opening chapter of my book in a couple of weeks and having a strong opening has been on my mind. I’m reading your series on scene structure now to make sure that goal/ conflict/ disaster pattern set up early. I love your clear writing. It’s exactly what the doctor ordered.

  3. Great article. In the story I’m currently working though, I’m actually wondering if I began too late. I think it maybe be possible that what is my hook might work better as my first plot point, but I’m not really sure. The problem seems to be that even though the scene is a major event such as a first plot point would be, it’s also the first point that the protagonist becomes aware of the conflict. I use the transition between the beginning and middle to introduce a few other main characters. It also seems to be the point where the protagonist really chooses to take on the conflict so maybe it’s fine after all.
    Do you happen to have any tips for how to tell if you’ve started a story too late or not?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Opening a story too late is also always a possibility. One reason authors sometimes do this is because they believe their Inciting Event needs to take place in the first chapter. What happens in the first chapter is your *Hook*; the Inciting Event, which will be the first true brush between protag and *main* conflict, occurs at the turning point of the First Act at the 12% mark.

      Romance stories usually offer a very good example of how this works. The opening chapter(s) introduce the characters and their personal conflicts and goals. But the actual meeting of the romantic leads–and thus the introduction of the main conflict–doesn’t occur until the Inciting Event, 12% of the way into the story. The First Plot Point at the end of the First Act (25% mark) will then be the major, inextricable kickoff of the conflict, as the two leads officially establish a relationship of some kind (antagonistic or otherwise).

  4. Many moons ago I sent out the first version of The English General to an important agency in Toronto. Snail mail, SASE, the works.
    In a bit of a miracle I received a response (any my ms back) with a personal letter from the agent. Unfortunately she declined for a (I thought) strange reason: she would not represent any work which mentioned any form of sexual abuse. Hmm. A *backstory* event in the wife’s life.
    But then she added one sentence which has stayed with me ever since. “Your novel does not begin until chapter 3.”
    This is apparently a common weakness. I have attended to it most carefully ever since.
    Also, BTW, I changed the opening chapter to conform to her advice, and was able to scatter any needed information further along.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is, I think, a common tendency among writers. There’s a delicate difference between opening with necessary setup–and setting up the opening before we actually get to the story itself.

  5. This is such a tricky subject, it´s not easy at all to know where to begin o.O I think it all comes to where do you want to get to in the first place. For me, the book jacket technique has been a blessing! Of course I owe it to you, lol.

    M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, honestly, the best place to begin will *always* be dependent on how the story will end (since the beginning and ends are your story’s bookends) and also the events that will be taking place at the Inciting Event and First Plot Point (since those are what the beginning needs to be setting up).

  6. I’ve often wondered this myself. Until recently, I’ve never liked how slow my first few chapters were – even going so far as to warn potential beta readers of this.

    I’ve considered moving my beginning to what’s currently chapter 3 or 4, or starting earlier, with what’s currently the flashback of chapters 7 and 8. But after thinking it over, and reading it, I currently think I’m best off starting where I am.

    My question always was where you draw that line – where you say nothing much happens. I wouldn’t call it a super-exciting chapter, especially compared to some of the real gems I wrote later (her life’s in danger, or she has to confront some harsh reality/ethical dilemma), but it does set up a major conflict. My protagonist wants to get assigned a certain job, only to learn she can’t – because of what appears to be a government conspiracy.

    Or maybe I’m just overthinking it all.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One thing I would strongly recommend is *not* warning beta readers of the areas you’re worried about. Then, after they’ve finished reading the book, ask them for their opinion of those areas. That way, you can an objective opinion that isn’t influenced by your own feelings, one way or another.

    • Would this be too “fast” ?

      Hook: “No, you don’t get the job.”

      Attempt to discuss why not (foreshadow conspiracy).

      Leave the office, speculate with friends why not (introduce background info).

      No, don’t warn beta readers — are you going to warn ALL readers? This is information the beta readers should be telling YOU, so you fix it.

      • Rod: Thanks for putting your story idea out here – that takes a lot of courage!

        The follow-up seems like a trough in the action. The hook (“No, you don’t get the job”) builds tension, but then it sounds like the characters will only think/discuss/ruminate on this statement.

        Perhaps give the character something to DO about it. Your reader will want to see how the character acts in response, how he/she chases the goal in spite of this setback. What he/she thinks about it, conspiracy or otherwise, is just padding for a bold choice and action.

        Good luck!

      • Yeah, I don’t warn people any more – I used to. But then, it’s been a while since I’ve gotten any new beta readers.

        In my current version, I have some buildup to the reveal that she’s not going to be assigned the job – what the job is, why she wants it so badly, and several people telling her “Nobody gets that job”. But maybe it would be good to reorder the actions in that chapter a bit.

  7. Marissa John says:

    This is so timely! I’m rewriting my opening of my finished work, reimagining act 1 after getting consistent feedback that my heroine isn’t sympathetic enough. It’s book 1 of my Romantic Fantasy so I have to get it right. I hadn’t boxed her in enough (or started her from a dark enough point) so that running for her life with an assassin was the ONLY option for her.

    My old opening didn’t meet the criteria you presented. My new one does.

    Marissa

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Awesome! Great to hear you’re on the right track.

      • Marissa John says:

        But I got to thinking— is it possible to begin a novel too late?

        In book 2 (which is on back burner for a few weeks), the opening I had just didn’t make sense. I had a significant event in the Hero & heroine’s lives together that I originally had planned as backstory. (A priest accidentally married them and a prophecy immediately split them up) it was TOO significant to be backstory. I experimented with opening the story the morning after they succumbed to desire, consummating their marriage, and SHOWING the events that split them apart. Ch 2 is over a year later.

        The change creates an actio-packed opening sequence that really belonged in the story.

        Has something like that ever happened to anyone?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          The most important thing to concentrate on in the “too late?” question is how the structure in the rest of your First Act stacks up. As long as you’ve got your Inciting Event (12% mark, halfway through the First Act) and First Plot Point (25% mark, end of First Act) in the right places, you’re probably opening in the right place too.

  8. Great post. Beginnings are so tricky! That’s why I generally start by writing a scene somewhere in the middle of the novel then work my way up to the beginning. It’s too much pressure up front. Really great tips here!

  9. So conversely, a story begins too late when there’s too much happening? And when the MC is already enmeshed in the conflict? And when there’s no breathing room for background info?

    • I always feel that we have to know SOMETHING about the MC before we plunge him/her into some sort of action or danger.

      • I am so glad someone mentioned the starting-too-late problem. I get so confused and overwhelmed when I read a novel that begins in the middle of a confusing action scene and there’s nothing there to help me understand or care about the MC. I don’t mean that it’s always off-putting to me when the first scene has action, but I feel the exactly OPPOSITE of hooked when a novel opens with a lot of action. I do not care about reading further just because a lot of stuff is happening. I do care about reading further if I connect with the MC. It’s a tough balance, and I’m so glad that someone mentioned that it really is a balance.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          A lot of writers hear the “begin with action” or “begin in medias res (in the middle of things)” advice and take it to mean the story has to open with guns blazing. It’s important to realize that, first, “action” just means “something happening,” which means “conflict,” which means “the character in pursuit of a goal that is encountering obstacles.”

          Second, it’s important to realize “in the middle of things” doesn’t mean the story has to start literally in the middle; it just means we need to cut out the throat clearing and start with the scene in which things first start getting engaging and interesting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Right-o. First half of the First Act is primarily about setting the stage: characters, settings, stakes. What’s the protagonist’s Need/Want/Lie?

  10. This is a very key concept. Tying into one of your previous posts, I have implemented foreshadowing in the first chapter. Hopefully by getting the reader to ask questions, right off the bat, you can get them to chapter two. Also you can hint at the main conflict by teasing similar actions?

    jeliotmason.blogspot.com

  11. Love this post!

    I can’t recall how many times I’ve shared a piece and was exhorted to cut the first page or entire first chapter, all because nothing was happening yet.

    Great advice for authors. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I generally find it very helpful, in writing my own stories, to go ahead and write that full page or chapter(s) of throat-clearing, just to get it out of my own system. But before the book travels on to readers, I want to trim down the first chapter to get to the interesting stuff right away.

  12. thomas h cullen says:

    If it had been traditional, I can only guess that The Representative’s beginning might’ve been Krenok’s dealing with Earth (probably the most effective way to start) – but who knows?

    How a story begins should be to do with its essence.. what’s the story’s core identity?
    The application of this question was how The Representative’s origin was figured out (or, better to say, deemed a no brainer).

    At heart, a story that’s not about three planets and a resource, but, a story that’s about a father and a daughter.

    Anytime now, that I query, I make sure to communicate clearly The Representative’s core identity – not a story, but a “representation of a story”.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is sound advice. It’s always important to dig down and find the core of the story. It’s not always what’s obvious.

  13. thomas h cullen says:

    When it comes to movies and beginnings, I think Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers’ opening is beyond masterpiece.. Truly beyond masterpiece!

  14. I worry about my current story. In it I have my Hero & his friend playing a game of billiards and discussing the perceived conflict. That only lasts for a page or two before the Heroine is introduced and the true conflict. My critique partners & mentor think it’s okay because the set up is necessary to being in the Heroine.

    I love it. I love the guys and their banter, the direct tie in the to Heroine. But I still worry about it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Banter is always good. Although I generally have qualms about “discussion” openings (and would still recommend reinforcing a goal for the protag), readers will forgive a *lot* if you give them humor right from the start.

  15. Jim Arnold says:

    Never worried about it because I didn’t know that could happen. Going over the last book I wrote, I realized that too many things moved way too quickly. A mistake that will be avoided in the next book.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As always, beginnings are a balance: we don’t want things moving too quickly anymore than we want them moving too slowly.

  16. I always start my stories with a slower first chapter. It’s not even that no conflict arises, but rather that there isn’t much “action,” and I’m always afraid there isn’t enough going on to hook readers. In my current WIP (first year of NaNoWriMo) for example, the inciting event has already occurred (a move) but the 1st chapter opens the day after moving in, before the 1st conflict occurs. So it’s sort of between the two and I’m not sure if it’s good enough to make an interesting opening chapter.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Best question to ask when you’re doubt about whether a chapter is interesting enough or not: Does it keep *your* interest? Are you enjoying writing it–or are you eager to move onto a different scene?

  17. I think I would rather err on the side of starting “too late” than too soon. I especially like starting with dialogue which can put the reader right into the story before time is spent explaining surroundings, plot points, etc. I think it can draw the reader in more when those things are revealed in bits and pieces later. People tend to like to “discover” things on their own rather than just be told. Depends on the genre, but it’s a fun experiment: start your first chapter when the dialogue starts and see how it feels.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s always a great technique to get dialogue into the opening chapter as soon as possible. I think it was Nancy Kress who commented that her books didn’t start selling until she started putting dialogue on the first page.

  18. Phyllis Stewart-Ruffin says:

    I’ve written a memoir that is now being chopped by self-revision. I attempted to alternate chapters, set in adulthood with immediate conflict, then childhood with background. It isn’t working well. Readers would be tempted to get a snack or check email every second childhood chapter. Snip, snip. Background will be incorporated bit by bit as needed.

  19. Abbie Wilkes says:

    I’m worried I’ve actually started my opening chapter too late. The book is about the protagonists downward journey but I had to establish that the villain invades his homeland and captures him so he can begin this journey. So the first jumps right into the invasion. There’s maybe a page and a half of revealing his ‘normal’ world before things get crazy. Is this too much too soon?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Not necessarily. Lots of stories begin in medias res–in the middle of things. As long as you’re opening with a pertinent hook that piques reader curiosity, and as long as the rest of your First Act calms down enough to establish the characters, settings, and stakes before diving full-on into the main conflict at the First Plot Point at the 25% mark, you should be fine.

  20. Thanks for the reassurance! I’m pretty confidant the first act is calm enough but will double check. Thanks for letting my delve yor mind the past few days! Love your site.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Just don’t confuse “calmness” with “nothing happening.” 😉 What I mean by “calm” is simply taking the time to set up the characters, their motivations, and their desires before they fully engage with the main conflict. This doesn’t mean they won’t want something and won’t encounter obstacles during this time.

      • There are a lot of big things happening right off the bat but they still build characterization and setting. About to be ready for beta readers!

Trackbacks

  1. […] 5.) 2 Ways To Tell You’re Beginning Your Story Too Soon […]

  2. […] Then you’ve got to start the writing. But where in the story to begin? K.M. Weiland gives us 2 ways to tell you’re beginning your story too soon. […]

  3. […] as easily as it can improve it. Unfortunately, knowing where to start your story is hard, no doubt. Starting your story too soon is one of the most painful experiences you can inflict on your […]

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