How to Tell if Your Story Begins Too Soon

This week’s video talks about a few of the problems and warning signs when a story begins too soon.

Video Transcript:

Authors are always being warned not to begin their stories too soon. The idea of beginning in medias res—or “in the middle of things”—is popular these days because it plunges readers into the plot right away without dragging them through pages of backstory or setup. But at the same time we have to give readers enough backstory and setup to make sure they’re able to understand the characters, the plot, and the stakes within the overall context. As a result, it can sometimes be tricky to figure out exactly the best spot to open your story. Today, I want to talk particularly about how to tell when your story begins too soon.

The first question you need to ask yourself is, “What is the first dramatic event in the plot?” Finding this event will help you figure out the first domino in your story’s line of dominoes. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that should be your first scene. Sometimes that first domino can take place years before the story proper and therefore will be better told as a part of the backstory. However, nine times out of ten, this will be your best choice for a beginning scene.

Another thing to keep in mind is the placement of your first major plot point, which should occur around the 25% mark. If you begin your story too soon or too late, you’ll jar the balance of your book and force your major plot points at the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks off schedule. So consider your first plot point, which will be the first major turning point for your characters and, as a result, often the inciting event. The setup that occurs before these scenes should take no more than a quarter of the book. Anymore, and it’s a guarantee that you’ve begun your story too early and need to do some cutting. But the most important thing to keep in mind is the most obvious: No deadweight. The beginning doesn’t have to be race-‘em-chase-‘em, particularly since you need to take the time to introduce and set up characters, but it has to be tight. Otherwise, your readers are gone.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever begun a story too soon?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. ok so i just started…like really newborn baby k. I need to know when to cut chapters i got in a roll and now my first chapter is about 13058 words any advice?

  2. Technically, you can make your chapters any length you want. Some books don’t even have chapter breaks, so, in essence, the whole book is one big chapter. But for most books, shorter is better – say between 2,000 and 4,000 words.

  3. THANK YOU

  4. My pleasure!

  5. Excellent article, but I have a related concern: is it possible to start a story too late? I’m working on a novel now where I’ve had to rewrite the first chapter (I’m considering doing away with chapters and writing in scenes instead, but that’s another discussion) and I’ve started things off with the first major plot point of the story, which was originally going to be a subplot before I changed up my plans a bit, then the immediate next scene puts the protagonist right on the trail of the main story. I thought this would be a good way to have my protagonist be proactive, and to have an instant hook for the reader, but I’m starting to wonder if maybe this is rushing things a little.

  6. It’s just as possible to open a story too late as it is too early. The main responsibility of the first quarter of the book is to introduce characters, settings, and stakes – and setup the main conflict. The First Major Plot Point, which should come in roundabout the 25% mark, then changes everything and plunges the character into the conflict irrevocably. I would suggest stepping back and evaluating what you’ve got happening at the the 25% mark. Do you have enough space to get everything set up prior to that? If so, you’re probably fine.

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