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Getting started

It’s hard to determine a story’s turning points if you don’t know where it begins. Duh, right? But a large part of my pre-writing phase has been focused on figuring out what is back-story and what’s not.

It sounds like such a simple concept, but beginning too early or too late can be the death of an otherwise good manuscript. In my experience judging contest entries—and with my own writing—the temptation to start too early is especially strong.

In our desire to make sure the reader understands what’s going on, we’re tempted to throw in everything that’s happened to the hero since birth. While some books do this well, in my opinion the best books start with a change, or a foreshadowing of change. That is, a spark or catalyst that logically sets things in motion.

I recently judged a contest entry where the writing—the element of getting words on the page in a coherent and interesting fashion that makes me want to keep reading—was good. Unfortunately, the author started too far back and I eventually grew impatient for the “real story” to start already.

In my own manuscript, Slow Burn, I originally had opening scenes where the hero’s brother is kidnapped, the hero gets shot, and later the heroine escapes from a boat into the ocean and then struggles to survive the cold water. Some of those scenes were pretty exciting, but when I tried to figure out what the goal of the scenes were in relation to the story I realized I’d started too early in the characters' lives.

Where did things really change for them in a relevant way? When Steve found Libby floating in the water.

That was the inciting incident. (And coincidentally, or not, that scene was the original spark for the whole book.) It brought them together, started them on their initial journey, and paved the way for my first turning point. Everything I’d written before that became back-story that I sprinkled throughout the MS.

And in fact, not immediately knowing how or why Libby ended up in the ocean creates a story question that hopefully entices the reader to keep reading.

What about you? Do you struggle with where to start?

Tell your friends!


  1. Reply

    I just started reading the first Harry Potter book to my daughter (almost 7). It’s been years since I read it, and I had no memory of how it starts. The first 7 pages are from the POV of Vernon Dursley. It basically lays out the strict muggle world that baby Harry–whom we haven’t met yet– will be entering, with Vernon’s antagonism to all things magical. As I read it aloud to my daughter, all I could think was, “Wow! This is all backstory!” As I neared the end of this section, my daughter said, kind of sheepish, “This is kind of boring. When will we get to the magic.”

    Not that HP was written for the attention span of someone that young, but I think of what an interesting choice it was that Rowling made… and what a lucky thing that so many readers had the tenacity to keep reading to “get to the magic”!

    • Reply

      Hey, Kathleen, it’s good to “see” you again. 🙂 It’s been ages since I read HP too. Interesting! James A Michener wrote interesting historical novels, but he always started with the birth of the universe and focused in from there. A bit too much history if you ask me. 😉

      I’ve also found that certain genres–romantic suspense for instance–encourage the use of prologues. It’s hard to find an RS that doesn’t introduce the hero through a prologue, even if it’s not particularly relevant to the story. My guess is that it’s because we have to see the SEAL/cop/mercenary/fighter pilot in his role because often the actual story does not take place in that exciting world. Not sure.

      I’ve been leaving them out, figuring that if a publisher wants one, they won’t be shy about asking. 😉

      Thanks for stopping in and sharing your experience. I hope you “get to the magic” soon!

  2. Reply

    The 1st chapter is always hardest for me. In one manuscript, I wrote the 1st chapter 11 times. I’m not talking about rewriting. I’m talking about 11 different ways to start it. I just could get all the elements to balance out: sympathetic characters, proper tone for the genre, enough action/excitement/interest to keep the reader going, no info-dump back story, blah, blah, blah.

  3. Reply

    I have that bad habit of too mush early words also. So when I planned the current WIP I spent a couple of seeks writing very thorough back stories for all of the main characters and abbreviated the beginning. I don’t think I can get any closer to the inciting incident than I am now. We’ll so how it all ends up in a couple of months when I finish the final polishes.

    • Reply

      Tony: It’s interesting to me how as readers we can tell when someone puts in too much at the beginning, but as writers we all want to put the back-story in there.

      Always a struggle. Good luck with the writing!

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