Starting the Story Too Soon

by Suzanne Hartman

(Part 7 of Suzanne’s TOP 10 NOVEL STARTING MISTAKES series, posted on her blog)

Determining the correct starting point for the story is one of the most difficult things for a new author to do. Even experienced authors can struggle with this. One reason why is that we often don’t know exactly when the right starting point is until we’ve finished the story.

Another reason it is difficult is because the novels we write don’t just start out of nowhere. They have a history. Actions occurred before the story actually starts. Usually, these actions are instrumental in bringing about the story. So what point should we start our novel? Don’t think of it as “starting at the beginning” as though you’re being interviewed by a detective who needs every single detail from the very beginning. If you do, you’ll end up starting too early.

Our job is not to start the story at the beginning, but to start at the best point for bringing in the readers. Remember, we need to hook the reader, so we need to start at a point where there is excitement—something to pull the reader in. But we can’t start so far into the story that we have to add a lot of backstory so the reader doesn’t get confused.

Example =
Let’s say you’re working on a story about a woman who loses her job at the newspaper. She can’t find another job, so she decides to become a freelance writer, but can’t afford to send her daughter to childcare. Because she thinks being a full-time mom is unimportant, she pays more attention to her work than her daughter. Your story is about her journey towards understanding the importance of motherhood.

Finding the perfect starting place is a challenge. It’s tempting to try to perfect it when you write chapter one. Resist the temptation and keep working on the story. Save the hook for last, after you’ve finished the book. Then go back and revisit the first several pages. Now that the full story is completed, you will have better clarity to decide the best place to invite the reader into your story.

Don’t start with the day that she gets fired, then follow her through her unsuccessful job hunt and the decision to freelance. That’s all backstory. It’s ho-hum and will lull the reader to sleep.

The story actually starts with the situation which begins her journey. On this day, she goes to the park and tells her daughter to go play in the playground, then turns her attention to her work. A group of people arrive at the nearby pavilion and start having a party. She is so engrossed in her work that she doesn’t notice that she hasn’t seen her daughter for a while. The party gets rather wild and the police arrive. Unable to concentrate any more, she decides to leave, but can’t find her daughter. None of this, however, is exciting enough to grab the readers’ attention and entice them to turn the page to find out what happens next.

Start with the action—when the woman notices her daughter is missing. You can fill in the details with little bits of backstory as the action continues. When the policeman asks her questions, she can explain why she was at the park. She can berate herself for not being more observant while she waits for the police officers to finish dealing with the partiers. After she arrives back at home, she realizes what a hole in her life she now has without her daughter and she can grieve over how little time she spent with her.

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Suzanne Hartmann is wife to a wonderful husband, a homeschool mom, and a consulting editor for PORT YONDER PRESS. She and her family reside in the St. Louis metro-east area. Suzanne operates SUSPENSE WITH A TWIST (website) and WRITE AT HOME (blog) to offer RESOURCES ON THE CRAFT OF WRITING, as well as a CRITIQUE SERVICE, to help authors improve their writing and take it to a new level. Suzanne is also the author of the pre-published book, THE RACE THAT LIES BEFORE US, which her agent, Terry Burns, is working hard to find a publishing home for. Visit Suzanne’s blog at: http://suzanne-hartmann.blogspot.com/

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