Beginnings To Avoid

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.


  1. This is a great article Camy! My first book started with a subplot scene which was more interesting than the first main character scene. After my beta readers read it they all suggested that I rewrite and put the main character scene first.

  2. Great jolt for the morning--better than coffee! I thnk that might be the problem in one of my books--no clearcut proactive goal right from the start. My characters tend to be reactive(like their creator!)and that doesn't make for good reading. Thanks for the wakeup!

  3. I'm glad the article helped you guys! Thanks!

  4. Thanks, Camy. Your articles always help so much!

  5. Working on a novel now. This will really help! Its alot harder to write a novel then most people would think! I never really knew how hard it was till I started to write this one! I love how helpful all of your articles are! Thanks!

  6. thanks for this great article! Writing a book right now and this is really super helpful! do you have any advice on writing fanatasy?

  7. Thank you so much for the article! Writing my first novel and I just couldn't find the right beginning. Now I know which to avoid!:-)

  8. Anonymous, thanks!

    rachel, thanks! For fantasy, make sure you read a lot in your genre so that you're sure that your story isn't too similar to something else that's already out there. That'll get you a rejection the fastest, if your story is too similar to something already published.

    Rachel--thanks! Glad this was helpful!


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