Get to The Story: The Beginning


L—d! said my mother, what is all this story about?

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman  Laurence Sterne

When readers begin your story, they want to know certain elements, and very soon. Gone are the days when the scenic, lingering beginning of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native will draw in a reader. In modern preference, readers want to know the genre, the protagonist, and the story right away.

New authors may struggle with introducing required story elements without getting to the story.

The other day I began reading a “suspenseful spy thriller.” Chapter One consisted of a finely detailed conversation “introducing” the main character in his everyday world but without one iota of suspense. The chapter was filled with finely detailed descriptions of the setting, the protagonist’s appearance including down-to-the-buttons attire description, tools used with experience, and backstory about a family member. I began to wonder if this was a romance presented in the guise of a thriller. If it had been billed that way I would not have purchased the book, much less started reading. OK, I’ll give the author a break. Maybe the story starts in the next chapter.

Nope! Chapter Two presented the “save the cat” details of the protagonist caring for an ailing family member and a long description of a native talent built to professional standards. Now I was curious: when does the story start?

Finally, in Chapter 3, the intrigue starts. The author had already lost me. My curiosity drove me to find where the story started but I had lost interest in the story. I stopped reading.

The Pitfalls of the Beginning

In the first few pages of your novel, you need to get the reader into the story. I am certain that the author of the spy thriller believed she had met story essentials by portraying the protagonist’s normal life, showing that he was empathetic, and illustrating his unique talent. In doing so, she left the story behind.

In a recent article literary agent Peter Miller described his pet peeve in opening pages of a novel:

I enjoy when writers can find a balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further.”
Peter Miller, PMA Literary and Film Management

Writers need to find the balance between the “accounting” and the initial intrigue that makes the reader wonder what will happen next. In order to get your reader to keep reading get them to care about the character and their story dilemma. Readers want a sense of this is only the beginning how is it going to get worse?

Other major novel beginning pitfalls:

  • The tone of the narrative immediately. Reassure the reader that the genre you promised is what is in the story.
  • Minimize descriptive details at the beginning. No laundry lists of features either of the protagonist or the setting. Sprinkle details as the story progresses.
  • A gratuitous hook that is there just for excitement but is not part of the story–often a sex scene.
  • Backstory – the protagonist thinking or dreaming about what happened before.
  • Adjective and adverb heavy sentences.

Start the Story

No matter how many books your read or formulas you consider for writing a story, at the beginning engage your reader. Reassure them that the story you promised feels like the genre they want, gets your protagonist in action right away, and delivers a dilemma that keeps them reading for more.  

Zara Altair
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Argolicus thinks he has retired, but he and his tutor, Nikolaos, are drawn into puzzles, politics, and murder.
She consults with a select group of writers as The Story Bodyguard.

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