Beginning a Story: What Has to Be There

Thursday, May 29, 2014
by Alexkerhead
Writing is subjective as many of us know. One person may love a book; another reader may not. It's why Agent A rejects your novel, but Agent B brags about it all over social media. But I still believe there are certain things that the beginning of any solid fiction piece should do, whether you are writing a five-book series or a short story for children. I taught these same principles to my elementary students when we learned about what makes a good beginning. Here's the simple list:

  • The beginning catches the reader's attention.
  • It sets the time and place.
  • It introduces the main problem in the story or the point where life changes for the main character (inciting incident).
  • It makes the reader want to keep on reading.

It seems if I'm teaching these four basic principles to elementary students--that as experienced writers, we should understand and even master these criteria for a good beginning in our fiction. But I've read hundreds of drafts of stories and novels (including my own!), and these four points often elude even the best writer. Why is that?

One, I think we are often too close to our story .We think our readers just really need to know A, B, and C about our main character before we show the inciting incident at the beginning, so that the reader truly understands the depth of the problem. This is usually NOT TRUE. We need to give readers more credit and present them with an interesting or exciting beginning that starts at the inciting incident. They will catch on to our character's flaws and back story as the story moves forward.

The second problem is almost the opposite. Many times we know our story so well, we forget to put important information down on the page. For example, you know your story takes place in New York City, 100-years into the future after aliens have invaded Earth. But does your reader know that when he is first introduced to two main characters sitting in a pizza place, discussing what to eat for lunch (right before an alien attacks them)? The setting details don't need to slow the pace of the beginning down--that's the last thing you want to do; but you can write hints here or there in dialogue tags or in the dialogue to set the reader up. Some writers think it's cute or interesting to keep readers in the dark for the first few pages or even the first chapter. This only works in a VERY FEW well-structured books. If the reader is confused, he or she will put down your book and pick up another with a better beginning. An agent will offer that other writer a contract--trust me.

So, look at your beginning. Does it meet those four criteria mentioned above? Ask your beta readers, critique group members or peers if the beginning works. After all, it is one of the most important parts of your book or short story. If readers can't get past it, they won't make it to your brilliant ending.

Margo L. Dill is teaching writing short fiction for children and teens in an online class, starting June 4. Sign up now at the link to take this class. Margo is the author of the YA novel, Caught Between Two Curses , and the middle-grade novel, Finding My Place.  Find out more at


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--This is great advice. Often, if it's not a book by a favorite author of mine that I'm considering, I will turn to the first page and read the first paragraph or the first page. If it doesn't hook me, I won't buy it.

Angela Hood-Ross said...

I agree with Sioux. Most of the time, when I am looking for a new book, I read the blurb then a couple of paragraphs of the first chapter before deciding if I'm going to purchase it or not. From now on, with my own writing, I will definitely keep these points in mind. Wonderful blog.

Margo Dill said...

Sioux, I don't think you are alone. As a matter of fact, once people make it past the cover and book cover summary, that's the next key--the beginning!

Margo Dill said...

@Savannah Rose--thanks, and I agree with Sioux too! :) And yes, it's so hard to figure it out with our own writing. That's why in my opinion my critique group is invaluable.

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