Should You Start Your Story at the Beginning?

In the beginning of the story, you must establish your main character and the basic plot of the story. The beginning of your story should grasp your reader's attention. It has been said that because of the attention spans of people today, you have only 3-5 seconds to capture their attention. That's not much time.

For this reason, your first sentence must be a powerful one—a hook, as we writers call it. It must capture the reader's attention so that they will want to keep reading. A boring first sentence or first paragraph will leave the reader tossing the book on the table or placing it back on the bookshelf. Obviously, that is not what we want. No matter how good your story is, if you fail to hook your reader with your beginning, your story will probably go unread.

Here are a few examples of good beginnings that hook the reader and immediately draw him into the story:

Nothing ever starts where we think it does. So of course this doesn't begin with the vicious and cowardly murder of an FBI agent and good friend named Betsey Cavalierre. I only thought that it did. My mistake, and a really big and painful one. - Violets Are Blue, James Patterson

Notice in this example, the author tells you that the story doesn't start where you think it does or even where the main character thought it did. This leaves you wondering where the story actually begins, as well as intrigued by the knowledge that you'll be helping to solve a crime.

The New England woodcarver Jacob Adams was having a lean year— as lean and unprofitable, he thought, as if the Devil himself had a hand in it. If Jacob Adams had been born two hundred and thirty years later, he would simply have thought, Business is lousy. - Ghost Ship, Dietlof Reiche

In this example, you, as the reader, are intrigued by the last sentence. Why would Jacob have thought differently at present than he would have 230 years later? What led him to believe that the Devil himself had a hand in his lean and unprofitable year? In just one short paragraph, you are left with questions that beg to be answered.

Winter's chill hung in the air like thousands of polished silver shards, poised to fall soundlessly to the ground. A young woman stood in the midst of the chill, heedless of its potential to harm her, and motionless, as if simply breathing in and out was all she could manage. She remained there for quite some time, fighting visibly to keep herself upright. In time, she took a careful step forward, only to rest again, still breathing raggedly, still adding to the frost. - The Mage's Daughter, Lynn Kurland

Again, the author begins in the middle of the story, leaving you feeling like you must read on to figure out what's happening. Who is this young woman? Why is she so weak? What happened to her? Will she be alright?

Many new writers are under the impression that at the beginning of the story they have to spill out, in great detail, everything that they know about the main character and the plot of the story. Big mistake! This will cause your readers to feel as if you're simply throwing bits of information at them and expecting them to make sense of it. Character development and plot development can take place later in the story. It can be worked in as you go along. Don't give in to the temptation to deliver all your facts on the first few pages of your book or first few paragraphs of your story. If you do, you leave your reader with nothing to look forward to, and therefore, no reason to finish reading.

(Excerpt from my fiction writing class at
Learn Write Now. You'll be pleased to know that this e-class is now available in e-book format for a mere $19.98. Click here to purchase your copy.)

Fabulous Writing Prompt

I came across this writing prompt the other day, and I just had to share it with you. It's awesome!

If you could go through a beautiful, mystical door which leads to a utopia where the most perfect life for you was suddenly possible, what would the door and the utopia look like, what would it feel like, and what would this door have opened up for you? (Prompt provided by Trendle Ellwood.)

Take 1,000-3,000 words, and see what you can come up with. I assure you it's an excellent way to boost your writing skills, not to mention stretch your imagination. What are you waiting for? Give it a try.

Hit Your Muse With a Rock

There is a very healthy market of books on how to write and — more importantly — how to find inspiration. Every day, frustrated writers struggle with getting their characters on paper — they battle writer’s block and boredom and the conviction that the story isn’t worth writing. They rack their brains for ideas on how to liven the story, how to make it work, how to “find their muse.” And yes, many of them are sitting in the chair, hand on pencil, eyes on the page as they struggle, so it isn’t even an issue of taking the time to write. It’s an issue of making the writing fit the time.

Seriously, when your muse deserts you like this, hit her with a rock.

Blink. A rock? How can I advocate hitting an imaginary goddess of inspiration with a rock?

It’s simple. When a story stalls, that’s your invitation to write whatever comes to mind. You can begin with the most outlandish words you can think of. For example: “Muse, dear, I’m mad at you. I need a good story. Why aren’t you helping me? I’m throwing a brick your way.”

It sounds like a twisted form of on-the-couch therapy, but the key to this technique is that you write as you do it. Writer’s block is so harmful because it stops your desire to write. It halts the pen with thoughts of inadequacy. Hitting your muse with a rock is not the way to start the Great American Novel. What I’m advocating is a way to break that writer’s block. This probably won’t produce words you can use, and anyone looking over your shoulder might wonder at your sanity when the muse writes back with “Oh yeah? A rock? Is that the best you’ve got, writer-boy?” But this technique will get you writing. It will get thoughts from your mind onto the page, reopening the all-important path between eyes and pen.

This technique is actually a modified version of freewriting. Most writers use freewriting entirely off-the-manuscript. They find a fresh scrap of paper, scribble away for fifteen minutes or so to get in the head of their protagonist, and then they return to their typing. Hitting the muse with a rock requires no such interruption. As you sit before the precious manuscript with nothing to say, you duke it out with your muse right there. You type it onto your manuscript wherever it is you happen to be. Sure, the muse holds no real part in the story, but it relieves a lot of stress to throw rocks on paper. It loosens up the manuscript itself. Remember that writer’s block is the result of high expectation for the manuscript coupled with low expectations of your own abilities. Both of these impulses are wrong. A manuscript is never all-important — when you’re still at the stage for writer’s block, you’re sitting before a first or maybe a second draft. The story isn’t done yet. There’s plenty of room for change. Throw some bricks — you can always delete them later. A press of a key or a swipe of the pen restores the original work.

The secret, of course, is that you don’t need to throw bricks. You don’t need to involve your muse. As you develop this technique, you can focus it to meet the needs of your story. I discovered how much fun this can be during National Novel Writing Month, that wild month of the 50,000 word novel. For NaNoWriMo, the only requirement is word count, but getting that word count is hard. A week of writer’s block can be a deathblow to your work. To produce 1,667 words a day during the month of Thanksgiving and Christmas Shopping, every moment counts. You have to be focused and you have to be excited. The fingers must fly. So I began throwing rocks at my protagonists. Rocks, dragons, tanks, even a computer that was allergic to water. I tossed in absurd challenges, ideas that I would have never written had I taken the time to worry about the final product.

Strangely, the story I wrote worked. The protagonists fought back. Parts of the work seemed silly and ridiculous, I kept writing. The audacity of the story kept me in my seat — I never knew what would happen next, but I always knew I could find another rock.

There’s a reason why this technique works. Deep down, every story is about conflict. It’s about a protagonist facing a challenge and learning to overcome. Challenge on the page takes many forms, but you can imagine it as throwing a rock. Remember that your rock can represent any difficulty. It can be the prom dress that doesn’t fit. It can be the spooky neighbor who invites your protagonist to see the windowless basement after dinner. It can be the cute crush who’s too nice and too funny and to perfect for your protagonist to bear thinking about.

How does your protagonist respond to the rock? Does she duck aside, find her own rock, and throw it back at you? Or does she catch it in the stomach and throw up? Don’t think about it — write it. The key to this technique is to write every step of the way. Keep it fun. Pick an unusual rock, something that does not fit with the rest of your story. Has the heroic knight of the quantum order defeated the horrible space dragon? Give him the queen’s baby nephew to keep quiet for an hour. Has your heroine survived budget cuts and layoffs to become the executive vice president? Maybe her boss the vampire invites her to a round of midnight golf.

Remember, the goal here is not to write the Great American Novel. The goal is to break through writer’s block and to keep writing, to get the ideas free-flowing. Sometimes, you may discover an entertaining twist that you enjoy more than the original story. Other times, you’ll get a good laugh, reconnect with your characters, and then pick up from where you left off. The hardest part is letting go. You have to relax, ignore the expectations of greatness, and focus on your eyes and your fingers.

And, when all else fails, feel free to blame your muse. Just beware of the brick she’ll throw back.

Copyright 2008 Ryan Edel. All rights reserved.

Ryan EdelAbout the Author | More by Ryan Edel
Ryan Edel is a creative writer in Raleigh, NC. His website, 1-2-Writing Workshops Online, helps writers make the most of their fiction through daily articles, links to resources, and an online writing workshop: