How to Tell if Your Story Begins Too Soon

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, you must 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 this event 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 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. The setup that occurs before these scenes should take no more than a quarter of the book. Any more than that, and it’s a guarantee  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 dead weight. 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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever begun a story too soon? Tell me in the comments!

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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.


  1. Thanks for those guidelines. I was once told that I had begun my story too soon. But when I tried to change the starting point, I totally disconnected the reader from the main character. So I went back to the original. And, according to your guidelines, my story is starting right where it should be. So again, thanks.

  2. Great post! Trying to figure out where to start a story tends to go one of two ways for me: either it’s remarkably easy because the idea for the story was the inciting incident (which usually means plotting the rest of the story is a little more challenging), or it’s very difficult because I have more of the story planned out, but trying to figure out where the right place to begin is can be a bit of a challenge. I like the image of the domino effect–it’s a great way to think of it.

  3. I’ve heard it said both ways. Sometimes I feel like an agent wants a screenplay for an action movie instead of part narrative, dialogue, tension…
    But the plot points never change. This is something I work on after the first draft.

  4. Wow, I never really thought of finding the beginning that way. I knew that I wanted my first plot point 25% in, but I hadn’t thought of working backwards like that. It’s a great tip. Thanks for posting this.

  5. Thanks for these tips! Unfortunately, my editor always tells me I start the story too late. Lol!

    For my first book, “The Dragon Forest”, I wanted to provide backstory then start the action by Chapter 4. This series is for middle school kids. However, now that I am writing a YA series, most YA writers suggest the story needs to start immediately.

    I am learning to adjust! But it isn’t easy…

  6. Only twice have a done that. Which sounds great, except I only have two novels that I’m working on. Book one has lost, I think, about 20,000 words off the beginning. Book two is only going to lose about 3k – 4k (it’s still in early-formation stage; the chapter I have was just to meet the characters and get my head into the story a little). I’ve just been going by feel, though; I didn’t know about the 25% guideline. That’ll help a lot in the future.

  7. @Linda: I’m a firm believer in the importance of listening to our gut instinct. It’s rarely wrong. If it says our story needs to open at a particular place, it’s usually (although not always) right.

    @Ava: Beginnings are one of the toughest parts of the story. We have so many different elements we have to juggle – in addition to picking the right scene to use – that it’s no wonder we start pulling our hair out!

    @Alvarado: I outline extensively, but beginnings are never solid in my mind until I’ve worked them out on paper several times. I’ll often rewrite them three or four times before I’m satisfied I’ve got the right scene.

    @Kate: Outlining backwards is such a crazy idea, but, when you think about it, it’s also very intuitive. If we know where we need to end up, it’s easier to figure out what we need to do to get there.

    @Ruth: Authors today are so primed to the idea of beginning in medias res that we can often overreact and, as you say, begin the story too late. We have to take advantage of that first quarter of the book to develop the characters and set up the plot (which doesn’t mean, of course, that the first quarter should have no action).

    @Daniel: Next Sunday, I’ll be starting a series about plot structure, so we’ll be talking a lot more about the placement of the major plot points.

  8. I would have to say you’re right… except in mysteries and suspense. Most of the plot-books specialized towards these genres want the inciting incident much closer to the beginning than the 25% point… think about it, you’ve got a 400 page book, and the first body happens at page 100? Most of the time, they recommend within the first few chapters, if not the first page.

    I’ve read a few where there’s an exception (one used the plot device of a woman having a vision that there was a body in the cistern of her basement, but the body wasn’t discovered until the last few chapters). But, at least if you’re writing a mystery, your bodies start piling up early. 🙂

  9. Inciting events don’t *have* to take place at the first plot point. But some kind of major turning point always occurs approximately a quarter into the book.

  10. Thanks for your advice:) I was struggling with this when I started my WIP, but when I look at your tips, I think my 1st major plot point is at the 25% mark if not a little sooner. Thanks for your help:-)

  11. Glad it came in handy! Books are more forgiving than movies when it comes to the exact placement of plot points. In a movie you can time the plot points to the minute, but books offer a little more leeway.

  12. I have to tell you how much I appreciate your written script of the video. I have a hearing loss that makes it difficult for me to hear the voice on video so sometimes I don’t bother listening because the speaker does not speak plain enough for me. Its really nice to come by here, and be able to read it.


  13. I spent too long wondering where to start my main project, which point to develop the plot from, that I ended up postponing it until I could figure out a concrete beginning. The other day I got tired of waiting and just began writing from where it seemed comfortable and felt I had accomplished more in those few sentences than in all that contemplation. The rest can become backstory as it is the turning point.

  14. Definitely yes! I had heard somewhere that you can typically cut the first 30 pages of your novel as a revision strategy. Didn’t believe I could. Put it aside for a while. Came back. Cut the first 30 pages easily. Made such a difference!

  15. That’s pretty useful. I wrote a story once that began with action – a girl was running from the rising tide, climbed a cliff and then found herself in another world – which I thought would create a lot of excitement, and also confusion, but then I has so many problems with the introduction of the other world and all of it’s issues and stuff (falling kingdom, evil witches et. cetera) and ended up waffling.

  16. @Alice: My pleasure! I’m really more apt to read than watch myself.

    @sjp: There’s only so much we can plan ahead of time. Extensive outlines save me all kinds of work in the long run, but there’s a point where we just have to start writing.

    @Cynthia: That isn’t always true, of course, if only because some of us actually have the tendency to begin the story too late. But it’s definitely a good rule of thumb to keep in mind and to consider with every story.

    @Aimee: I experienced a similar conundrum in writing my upcoming fantasy Dreamlander and ended up cutting quite a few of the early chapters.

  17. Wow, Katie! This is such a great, valuable post. I struggle with this very thing at times when starting a new book and wondering if I need to back it up a little more or just dive in. Great rule of thumb percentages~ :o) <3

  18. Some writers feel boxed in by the idea of placing their plot points at deliberate moments in the story arc. But I actually find it liberating. Once the structure is in place, I’m free to be as wildly creative as I want to – without worrying that I’m just making a big mess by coloring outside the lines.

  19. Great advice! Thank you for this! I’ll have to go back through my outline and double check that I’m starting in the right place. 🙂

  20. That’s the beauty of outlines, isn’t it? You can see it all at a glance!

  21. I know this is late after the start of the discussion, but I just thought of something to pass along. Several years ago I wrote a novel and loved it, tidied it up and sent it out. Got a response in a month or so with a nice letter, “Thanks but no thanks” — and the agent then suggested that I had not actually got into the story until chapter three.
    I took a fresh look at it. She was right. It inspired me to cut off the first two chapters: but that also inspired me to do a thorough rewrite.
    I believe that the most valuable input into our writing is the knowledgable critique of an outsider who doesn’t know us and therefore has no reason to flatter us. This is one of the most difficult aspects of writing fiction: finding that reader.

  22. Totally, absolutely, 100% agree. Objective outsider opinions from beta readers, critique partners, and editors are crucial. The simple is that, by ourselves, we’re incapable of making our stories the best they can be.

  23. Loved the video! Very helpful, even though I seem to have the opposite problem — after some agent feedback, I’m thinking I started my story too late. And now I must figure out what really needs to be there before my inciting incident. Let the brainstorming begin! 🙂

  24. It’s all about balance – and beginning too late can be just as problematic as beginning too soon. Stay tuned to the Structure series. I’ll be talking about these things soon.

  25. 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?

  26. 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.


  28. My pleasure!

  29. 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.

  30. 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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