Well hello again.
We’re back on the writing train and today I’m coming at you with some tips for fixing your novel’s horribly boring beginning. I can say these things with confidence because they are not original thoughts—these tips come from Chris Baxter at storypolisher.blogspot.com, who shared them at a writing conference I attended back in February.
As a small disclaimer, keep in mind that just because your story may do these things doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad or boring. There is a chance that your particular novel is amazing enough that you have crafted these mistakes into something indescribably beautiful and unique and that editors across the land will praise you for your prowess in turning the boring beginning into a bangin’ beginning. But also keep in mind that these are things at which editors will more likely cringe, sigh, and roll their eyes, if they even have the time and energy to care that much. So when in doubt, throw them out.
Thanks to this presentation, I have learned that there are 5 common types of super boring beginnings. Want to know what they are? Here you go, my friend:
- You’re starting your story way too early. You’re bogged down in boring little minutae while you wait for the ball to get rolling, and character introductions are raining down upon the reader like nobody’s business. This can get dull really quick, and that’s something no one wants.
- Fix it: Find your inciting incident and start as close to that as you can. If you have extraneous details that are really fun and flesh out the world or character, but aren’t directly related to the story, scrap them in the beginning and find ways to stuff them in cracks later in the story.
- You’re starting your story too far away. Also known as the cinematic opening, this basically means you start your tale with a nice, zoomed-out description of a landscape or city, then zoom in to a snapshot view of something that’s going on, then—tah dah!—your character appears and we’re in her head. Movies do this all the time, which is why we feel like it could work. But—and this is something I have to repeat to myself all the time—books are not movies. Different things work with different mediums, and this beginning is a dud in written form.
- Fix it: Your character carries the story, so make sure the focus is on them. If you have an awesome landscape that sets the scene, show it through the character’s eyes instead of from a distance. Point out things that would stand out to your character, and it will have the added benefit of teaching us something about him in addition to showing us your world.
- You’re starting with the infamous infodump. Your character is standing around and doing a lot of thinking…about what got him into this situation, why the city is falling apart around his ears, why he’s chasing after his long-lost love, who was snatched away from him just before the story started after they were finally reunited. Chris makes the point that even action can’t save this story beginning. That means that even if your character is kicking some major bad guy butt while all this thinking goes down, it still bogs down the story. Too much reflecting right off the bat is no bueno.
- Fix it: A little bit of reflection is okay—just keep it short. If you can’t cut it down, this may be a sign that you started too late in the story. Can you shift the beginning so that more of the info given during the character’s thinking spree is now actively part of the story? Be sure your character has focus and a purpose, a clear goal that the audience understands.
- You’re starting with too much detail. You don’t need to describe how a character is placing her fingers on the cold, metal door knob. Then holding the doorknob tighter. Then turning her hand in a counter-clockwise direction to twist the doorknob, which squeaks slightly as it moves. You get the idea—these are unimportant details that slow the story down. Painstakingly detailed movements–even in exciting moments like fight scenes—are not necessary.
Fix it: If you don’t really need the details, get ’em outta there. Watch out for repetitive actions (She stood and walked to the door. She opened the door. She walked through and closed it behind her. She walked away.) Keep it simple—it’s easier to write and easier to understand as a reader.
- Your story has no stakes. There is no “why” behind anything that is happening. Why should the reader care about your character or what’s happening if they are perfectly safe and content? This doesn’t necessarily mean external stuff, either. Stakes could be in your character’s head, an internal struggle. Just make sure there’s something at stake, or this beginning has no bite.
- Fix it: Who is your character? What is their goal? Why does it matter? Keep these simple and tie them in to familiar emotions, and you’ll grab your reader. Also remember: the stakes in your opening scene don’t necessarily need to be the ones that drive the whole story—your opening scene can have a plot of its own.
That’s a pretty big wall of information, but hopefully if you made it through it helped you out. Confession: when I was sitting in this presentation I learned that the novel I was working on at the time (my first one ever, if that’s any excuse) made the second boring beginning mistake—it totally had the cinematic opening. So know when I share this that it’s not because I feel like I’ve got it nailed down, but because it’s something that actively helped me make my writing better. And that’s what we constantly try to do around here!
Have you done any of these “boring beginnings” before? Got any tips of your own to craft that perfect ? Let me know!