Why Avalanches, Wolves, and Lightning Storms Aren’t a Good Way to Begin Your Book

Why Avalanches, Wolves, and Lightning Storms Aren’t a Good Way to Begin Your Book

This week’s video cautions against opening with a type of conflict that might initially seem a good idea—and shows you how to figure out the right way to begin your book.

Video Transcript:

Action. You’re supposed to begin your book with action, right? There has to be some sort of tension and conflict and stakes if you’re going to stand any chance of grabbing your readers’ attention right out of the box. That’s been hammered into our heads by every writing book and magazine we’ve probably ever read. And it’s certainly true enough as far as it goes.

But what we don’t necessarily find implicit in that recommendation is what kind of action we should start off with. The only true rule here is that whatever kind of action you decide upon, it needs to be interesting. And what’s interesting to your readers will be largely subjective, based on the type of story you’re writing.

But today I would like to comment on one of the less effective types of action with which to begin your book—and that is anything involving avalanches, wolves, or lightning. In other words, anything that relies on impersonal antagonistic forces.

I recently read a fantasy that started with its characters in a blizzard running from wolves. High stakes, right? There’s action, there’s tension, there’s conflict. The bases are covered. But I—the reader—was yawning. When does it get to the good stuff? When does it get to an interesting interaction between characters?

Now this isn’t to say impersonal antagonistic forces are always a bad idea. Indeed, some stories will focus on them entirely. But generally speaking, they’re not a good way to open your story because they don’t provide enough color or context.

Readers don’t want to just see your protagonist running or fighting for his life. What they really want is to be hooked by an interesting situation, a little bit of irony, a conflict with an antagonist that raises questions in their minds. There’s rarely any question about why wolves are attacking or an avalanche is falling. So keep this in mind before you decide on any kind of impersonal action as the best way to begin your book.

Tell me your opinion: What do you think is the best way to begin your book?

Why Avalanches, Wolves, and Lightning Storms Aren’t a Good Way to Begin Your Book

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

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. No volcanic eruptions here. I prefer to open a novel showing the protagonist in a scene confronting a new problem in his/her life. It might be a small or even a subtle problem, and the conflict may itself be subtle. A father sending his son out of the country to avoid scandal – and the son goes to a new, challenging life.
    A general facing a captain across the general’s desk – the captain wants a transfer; the general (the protagonist) wonders if the captain has been assigned as his aide to spy for the Gestapo. This may not be a good opener for a reader who knows nothing about World War II, but I think it is a grabber for the historical buff.
    If I start this way – the protagonist in an inciting scene – I can set the background and introduce the character and lead forward in reasonable steps to the fireworks. In this way I can catch the reader’s interest and sympathy for the protagonist. Is it possible to feel sympathy for one of Hitler’s generals? You betcha. Especially with an early hint of his anti-Nazism.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Confronting a problem” is a great way to look at that first chapter. Conflict will always be inherent in that because the problem is an obstacle between the protagonist and a goal–and as long as the problem is a good one, that will always interest readers.

    • Great post! I call it the Tron Syndrome. You’ve got this guy racing away from the bad guy, the stakes are high, but you don’t really care whether he lives or dies. You are not hooked into his character. It’s predictable. You know there will be close calls, but he won’t die. If he did, it would at least be something unique. Same thing happens with high speed chases. Yawn.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        I used to unequivocally hate car chases. Took me a long time to meet one that actually engaged me.

  2. Definitely not with something happening TO the protagonist.

    I wonder if it always has to be action. I answered a story prompt on WordStrumpet.com the other day. The prompt was, “She couldn’t wait for him to leave, but she missed him as soon as he was gone.”

    I followed up with, “She had known him for 18 years and loved him desperately. It was time for him to go, but part of her wished it wasn’t. She was glad he had found something new that worked for him, but being an empty nester was going to be harder than she expected.”

    I was just writing, and the idea came from my personal situation. The blogger, Charlotte, and one of her regular commenters both said it sounded like the beginning of a novel. I hadn’t thought of it that way and don’t think I want to write that novel, but I do think that something like that (not necessarily my little paragraph) can set up a novel nicely, depending on the type of novel.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Action” is, admittedly, a bit of a misleading word. Nowadays, when we think action, we think of the action extravaganzas in the movies. But in the beginning of your book, action just has to be *something happening.*

  3. As always you make a very good point. I thought it always best to begin your story with the reader getting to know the main character before they go off on and adventures. Saying that, in the short story I have written, I actually begin my story with the antagonist being released from prison and being allowed to play professional soccer again, with the surrounding debate. The protagonist doesn’t show up until the second page.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Generally, it *is* best to begin with the protagonist. But there’s an exception to every rule. Sometimes a short intro of the antagonist can be an effective way to introduce the stakes.

  4. I usually try to start my books at a scene close to where the first body is discovered, but it depends on what my book is going to be about, too. One book I hope to release later this year or early next year currently opens with my victim getting kidnapped to be sold into slavery (of a sort.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The old dead-body trick used in most mysteries is a classically good example of how to raise questions. The inherent question in situations like that is always: “Who killed him and why?”

  5. True enough 🙂 Unless your character is deeply afraid of storms… THEN you can do a lot about that 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great example – because that immediately raises a question: “Why is the character afraid of storms?”

  6. Tom Adams says

    Another good article which highlights some issues which are crucial to avoid in the opening scene of a book. Personally, as a reader, I like scenes which offer a bit of suspense and mystery. Suspense with regard to what is going to happen and perhaps a mystery about something tjat has already happened in the protagonist’s life. If I’m asking questions like “I wonder what’s going to happen next?” or “Why is that character behaving/speaking in this way?” then it’s a good sign that the hooks are already in place.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree. Those are exactly the questions we want to inspire in readers right from the start.

  7. Never thought of this before. Great advice!

  8. Since I only have written one novel and I am only at 33% into my second novel’s first draft, I honestly can’t claim that I know the best way. My first novel begins with someone approaching a ruin and picking up a page that slowly came down floating in the wind. My second novel begins with narration. (Ooooh) It shows the work of a very special engineer. Then swiftly I show the action… kinda boring action at first, but since it is kind of unique. I know I have grabbed attention.
    Who am I? A bored 17 year old horror, sci fi writer who doubts he’ll be happy without writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Love the idea of the page floating down. Very visually evocative – and raises some great questions.

    • Stefan, I think you’ve probably *got* it.
      My definition of a true writer is a person who cannot NOT write. Good luck going forward.
      (I was writing stories when I was 12 – it took many many years to find my stride)

  9. thomas h cullen says

    With The Representative’s opening, the issue that Thaddius had taken with it was that it was “dysfunctional”: essentially, what happened, was that to him the purity of the content felt undeserved.. And I took this as a legitimate reaction. Amplified emotiveness and resolute characterisation are the usual bedrocks of story climaxes, not openings.

    Then however, I explained (as now I do)… The Representative’s opening isn’t undeserved; yes, Croyan’s resolute, his understanding already that his history as a parent eclipses everything else, but the future, the history of his, still to unfold.. it may not eclipse Mariel, but it is still certainly “limitlessly powerful”.

    And now, this is why I can transcend, hopefully changing my reality around me – with the help of other human beings – to leave this dimension of reality behind (And then who knows, perhaps in final time come back).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Best of luck with it!

      • thomas h cullen says

        Remember Star Wars: The Force Awakens… whether it’s this, or whether it’s the next Super Bowl, the next Oscars, the next World Cup, or whatever, thinking about all these kinds of realities now just serves to remind me of how limited people’s living is. How little they’re fulfilling their potential. (And how they’re just instead being managed!)

        Humanity deserves better. Hence why I say what I do.

  10. Marissa John says


    Action that has personal stakes for the protagonist – the perfect opening. I like to think of it as Save The cat. I like action openings but they have to be personal

    Let’s say our protagonist IS running from wolves but the alpha female may or may not be a wolf our heroine raised from a pup and released back to the wild. Create internal tension. Immediately raise the stakes. Make the reader care. Heroine is torn between fear and pride — if this is her wolf.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! Great example. Suddenly, it’s not impersonal at all – and raises some very interesting questions.

  11. Interesting points. I never really thought about it before (and I don’t remember reading any books that started that way), but what you say makes sense. There isn’t really any story question there, other than how they got into that mess and whether they’re going to survive it. It doesn’t provide a good hook.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Just as bad, it doesn’t provide a good progression – because the characters have to get out of this mess before they get into one that’s actually interesting to readers.

  12. Good points all. The avalanche tells us something about nature but nothing about the human condition. I want to know what made the character risk that avalanche. The human condition seems to be such that it lures the worthiest protagonists into deadly situations. We’re attracted to those characters because we know instinctively deep down that the only way to get beneath the boredom we live with is to “die” in some respect. The paradoxical need to destroy ourselves underlies all drama. When stories depict characters who aren’t too smart to enter avalanche zones, then readers get their money’s worth. What say ye?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree with that. Impersonal conflicts *do* present the question: “Why is the character in this situation?” But the continuing problem with that is the situation itself often isn’t particularly engaging as an opener. So even though readers might be curious about how the character got himself into this fix, they’re also likely to be in a hurry for him to get himself out of it, so he can proceed on to the *next* (hopefully more intrinsically engaging) fix. However, there are, of course, exceptions even to that.

  13. CrazyRead says

    I really don’t like beginnings where “action” is the only feature. Why should I care what’s happening to this person when I don’t know who he/she is or why he/she is running? If that is introduced quickly, I keep reading. If I get a page or two into it, and the question still isn’t answered, I quit.

    Generally, I like to start of with tension between characters. It gives the scene familiarity (say, familial disputes), and introduces conflict that can play a major part later on.

    One of my WIPs starts out with a thunderstorm, but it plays a part a few scenes later; one of my characters gets to ride a lightning bolt. 🙂

    Thanks for the article!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. Action – especially in the opening – needs to be there to serve character. Character is the prime ingredient in any beginning, but it’s true it can’t work on its own either. It’s not enough to just have the character sitting there thinking. He needs to be giving something to do, so readers can see him *in* action.

  14. An exception to this rule is the manly man thriller. The first Indiana Jones movie is the perfect example. Indie takes the artifact, escapes deadly traps, local natives, and his arch nemesis , then the snake shows up. None of this has anything to do with Indie’s goal in the movie, but it shows his personality and the type of story it is. It only failed in that Indie beat the snake instead of screaming like a girl and losing the artifact. This would have made his willingness to go into the snake pit to rescue his love interest much stronger.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good exception, although I would argue that the main reason it works is its sheer originality. If Indie had been running from wolves in a blizzard, it probably wouldn’t have caught our attention so completely!

  15. My current WIP originally started with a prologuey type of scene showing how my protag ended up in her current predicament and what she lost as a result. After months stuck on revising that chapter (and listening to your podcast) I decided on a more in the thick of things opening, that shows the conflict, the stakes and that there’s a personal connection to the protag, but leaves what happened as more of a mystery to build upon throughout the story and the plot. I’m still in that shaky place with the change in my mind because it has been one way for almost ten years with only minor tweaks until now.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds to me like you made exactly the right choice. Doesn’t mean it’s still not hard to see those darlings go though!

  16. I’m a new writer still in her high school years, but I still really want to write a book. I just started with only a loose outline so can explore as the words pour from my imagination, and I opened with a scene of my character in a room with a person he has to talk to but the room is dark. He has no idea who this person is even though he has “interrogated” him multiple times. Would this be too impersonal?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like a great hook! You’ve got personal interaction, and the lack of information about the other person immediately raises some good questions.

  17. Personally, I like books that start with a question. Why is this boy here? What do they mean by that? And so on.

    Great video. Thanks for sharing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You have good taste! Optimally, every book *should* start with a question. That’s the hook that pulls readers in and keeps them reading.

  18. jeff chandler says

    I would think something that the main character was struggling with on a moral level, that only the reader could see and emphasize with, would be a good opening paragraph to hold a reader long enough to want to see what happens next.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The key to any good hook is a question. As long as we present some kind of juxtaposition to make readers wonder what’s going on and why, we’ve probably got a successful opening on our hands.

  19. I think impersonal action only works if the character’s response to that action is unique or illuminating. If responding to an avalanche shows me that the main character is an experienced guide who leads climbing tours for a living – okay! If running from wolves tells me the heroine is a former werewolf, it works! And so on. The trick is matching the action to something important about the MC, rather than including it merely for the sake of spectacle.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree – although, as a hook scene, it needs to do more than *just* tell us an interesting fact about the character. It needs to create an atmosphere in which the character can do something fascinating.

  20. You’ve raised some good points to remember. I admit when it comes to thriller/suspense movies and books I like seeing the action in the beginning. But just not at the very beginning, the story has to build up it and have the action explode either within the first 30 minutes or 3 chapters. With my own WIP, I originally had a prologue where a character in the past, and linked to my MC in her present, dies in a plane crash. I’ve now gutted the prologue and the first chapter starts breaking into a high school to see the inside because she couldn’t wait for the first day of school. And I plan to disperse scenes of the crash and the events leading up to it as a series of dreams/nightmares for my protag.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Smart move! Prologues are all too often a poor way to hook readers into the story. Your new hook offers some great questions, as well as great opportunities for development both character and action.

  21. How many movies have I seen where this happens, right off the bat, leave you thinking “Okay, neat trailer. When does the movie start?” Then the lightning strikes and the scene changes into the actual beginning.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Movies can get away with this much more easily than books if only because the scenes can be extremely short and visually evocative. But, even still, it’s rarely the best way to begin even a movie.

  22. Marcos J Pinto says


    I’m still wondering if I’ve chosen the right way to begin my story. Lucky me, I read your book on ontlining, so I’m still.. outlining! And so it will be easier to change things later. I think. 🙂

    Anyway, when I started putting ideas together I felt the initial conflict that gives the story a reason to exist was too, well, warm. I needed higher stakes, something that could change his life forever, no way back. But there was no way I could include this in the beginning, when his life was normal (or almost normal).

    The best idea I could think of, so far, was to open the story with a scene that will only happen later in the timeline. The tension is there, the “all or nothing/life changing/life or death” ingredients are there, but the reader doesn’t know exactly why. Then I cut back to the real beginning.

    I know, I’ve read more than once that this is not something easy to do and, well, this is my very first attempt of writing fiction (I’m a published author, 11 books, all non-fiction).

    Bad idea?
    (sorry for my accent)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Generally, the “life-changing” moment is going to come at the First Plot Point, a quarter of the way into the book. This is where the character will leave the “Normal World” that’s been set up in the First Act. The hook in the first chapter just needs to be something that piques readers’ interest and sets up the fundamental conflict.

  23. Thanks for the heads up. I was in middle of rewriting my start so that it portrays my MC’s stregnths amd weaknesses more correctly. To more getting to know of him, but I might had fallen in this particular trap of unnecessary conflict for the sake of conflict. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A good rule of thumb for this sort of stuff is to first make sure *you’re* interested in writing it. If you’d rather be writing a difference scene, that’s usually a tip off that the current scene needs some extra love.

  24. Let me respectfully disagree. One of my favorite books – “White Fang” by Jack London starts exactly like that. Team of men running from wolves in the frozen wastes of Alaska. You can feel the cold and death on your heels . The struggle to survive even if at expense of other living things. One of the most powerful openings I ever read frankly

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is a good disagreement, actually. White Fang is an excellent example of how to make this “mistake” work because it is a story about wolves. The wolves are a completely organic and necessary introduction to the main conflict. If readers are bored by that opening, then they’re not going to like what follows – and vice versa.

  25. I usually like to start a new story with an interaction with a minor character that leads to some sort of interaction with another main character. The minor character tends to be a character that doesn’t reappear, because I like to give my main character a chance to show who he or she really is. An interaction with a stranger usually does that well. I think that it introduces their personality best. I also make sure that this interaction still matters, either in the moment or later on, because really, how disappointing is it when an author writes about something that you catalog away in your brain for later and then never mentions it again?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Very smart, re. making the interaction matter. Whatever happens in the opening scene *may* be just a framing device, but it automatically gains importance in the readers’ eyes just from its placement. Good point, too, on using a stranger to show who your MC *really* is. I’m tucking that one away for future use myself!

  26. Hi K.M.
    As an author who has begun a story, “The Woman Who Sewed Wolves” exactly as you have criticized, with wolves and a blizzard, I feel compelled to disagree with your stance. First, I’ll point out that your advice would preclude the work of many a well-known author whose works have begun, as you have discouraged, with protagonists battling impersonal forces of nature. Robert E. Howard’s frightening “The Thing in the Crypt” begins with Conan being chased by wolves. Of course, Jack London’s famous “To Build a Fire” begins with, and indeed, is totally concerned with his protagonist’s struggle against impersonal Arctic cold. Southern literary master Robert Penn Warren begins his 1959 novel “The Cave” with an impersonal and largely passive description of the entrance to a cave.
    I certainly understand and respect your preference for not beginning a tale with melodramatic “sturm und drang,” but I have to point out: that’s what it is — your preference. If it was my story whose “wolves and blizzard” beginning bored you, I have no argument with your reaction. As an author yourself, though, you should realize that not everyone will feel that way. Here’s the response to my story, wolves, blizzards and all, from Diane Reed, published author of two novels, who holds a masters degree in literature:
    “Yet nothing prepared me for reading Henry’s extraordinary story of the frontier, “The Woman Who Sewed Wolves.” This story is so perfectly crafted and heart-wrenching that as I was reading it I felt as though someone had combined the very best of Jack London’s realism with Alice Hoffman’s haunting magical prose that probes the depths of life’s mysteries. “The Woman Who Sewed Wolves” ranks up there with some of the greatest short stories I have ever read–a genuine masterpiece.”
    So there’s a differing opinion, and again, just that. It no more justifies my saying that most stories should begin with action, than your own opinion justifies the other stance.
    If you decide to publish this contrary opinion, you can let your readers see my story and decide for themselves whether or not they like the opening, as well as the rest of the tale. They can find it on my book review site, Honest Indie Book Reviews at https://honestindiebookreviews.wordpress.com/the-woman-who-sewed-wolves/
    I believe authors should begin their work the way that seems best to them, based on what what they want to express. If it’s action and avalanches, so be it. There’s not a thing in the world wrong with that, as long as they realize it won’t be everyone’s cup of tequila. Certainly not yours. I, on the other hand, love a good “avalanche opening.”
    I will only add that I’m a fan of your site, K.M. Though I disagree with your post “Why Avalanches, Wolves, and Lightning Aren’t a Good Way to Begin Your Book,” I feel for the most part you give good advice and your posts are right-on.
    Thanks for your consideration, and keep up the great work!

  27. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Thanks for chiming in, Gary! As a matter of fact, I totally agree with you. As I mentioned in a previous comment (in response to another reference to Jack London’s work), this “mistake” isn’t a mistake at all with the impersonal conflict is central to the plot or theme. When the story is *about* the weather or the wolves, then obviously the game totally changes. This only becomes a problem when it’s a fill-in for the real conflict.

  28. I think I see. Then it’s not really the avalanche, blizzard or wolves you object to, but any any action or event in the story intro that promises something not delivered in the body of the story. Sort of like the comic book cover that shows a dramatic scene that never actually happens inside the book. Is that it?

  29. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Right! Impersonal conflict will *usually* be less interesting to readers than personal conflict, and the odds on that go *way* up when the impersonal conflict isn’t even particularly pertinent to the main conflict.


  1. […] But what we don’t necessarily find implicit in that recommendation is what kind of action we should start off with. The only true rule here is that whatever kind of action you decide upon, it needs to be interesting. And what’s interesting to your readers will be …read more […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.