This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.
Beginnings To Avoid
Three Things That Weaken a Story Opening
There are three aspects of a character's actions and decisions that can weaken the first chapters of an otherwise good story.
There are many ways to start a story, and no "right" or "wrong" way. However, there are a few principles to follow that can help strengthen a novel's beginning. Here are three character traits that a writer should avoid in the first chapters.
The Character Doesn't Decide to Fight.
The phrase, coined by Dwight Swain, means that the character doesn't make that Decision which starts the story.
If a character doesn't commit himself to his external goal:
1) the character seems passive, which makes him unsympathetic to the reader.
2) the beginning seems to drag, which might lose reader interest.
3) the reader has no reason commit to the story if the character isn't committed himself.
Starting With a Subplot Unrelated to the Main Plot
Sometimes, writers will start the story with a subplot scene that is more intriguing than a main plot scene. Dozens of James Bond movies start this way, with a chase scene.
However, if the subplot scene has no relation to the main plot, it will frustrate the reader. A writer needs to establish the relationship between the subplot scene and the main plot as early as possible.
For example, in The World is Not Enough, a man is assassinated and the movie opens with James Bond chasing the assassin (subplot scene). Afterward, he discovers that the assassin was hired by Renard, who is after the daughter of the dead man. Bond commits to protecting her and killing Renard (main plot). The movie establishes early on that even though the chase scene was a peripheral—but very exciting—event, it tied into the main plot of finding Renard.
If the opening subplot scene is not tied into the main plot quickly, the reader might feel betrayed that one or more characters who open the story are not important. For example, if the man killed at the start of the chase scene had absolutely nothing to do with Bond's assignment of protecting Elektra King, it would make for a more dissonant movie for the audience, who had become emotionally involved in the assassin and why she killed the man.
The Character Doesn't Care
If the character's external goal changes later, it looks as if the character doesn't care about what's happening, resulting in a confused, diffuse story that is unsatisfying to the reader.
Make the character's Decision happen in relation to the main plot quickly so the reader knows what the character cares about for the book.
If the character doesn't care, the reader won't. If the character takes too long to make that Decision and show what he cares about, the reader may not make it to that page and will have closed the book long before then.
If the subplot is more trivial, it's harder for the character—and the reader—to care about it, which is why you want to show the character committing to a Decision about the main plot quickly. Transient or mutable desires, goals that change, or inconsequential desires that open a story make for a weaker character if he is sidetracked by these things rather than committing to a main plot goal.
In general, a character with a strong desire and motivation for his goal and actions makes for a more psychologically resonant character for the reader. And that will result in a book the reader won't be able to put down.