Five Ways to Not Start a Story
There are a million ways to start a story, yet writers seem to be drawn back to the same five bad ones. Here they are, with examples, and the reasons I think you should avoid them.
1. Waking up
Jane opened her eyes to the sound of the alarm. Another long day ahead. She struggled to lift her head from the pillow, but knew she had to get up or she’d be late.
Who cares? What bearing does this have on the story? Can we not just show Jane arriving at work, or, better yet, something actually happening? You can almost bet a month’s salary that the next thing Jane will do is look in the mirror and describe her appearance. Why? Again, there is no need.
Describing your character’s day from the moment they wake up is a brilliant writing exercise to help you, as their creator, get into their head and understand how they tick; but writing exercises are research for you as the author, not the opening scene of your story. Try it out, use it to your advantage, but never share it with the world. We just don’t want to read it.
2. The Weather
It was a grey afternoon—overcast—and gentle droplets of rain were beginning to trickle from the sky. The soft tapping of the delicate raindrops punctuated the silence, until it was interrupted by Jane’s alarm, waking her from her slumber.
Yes, I’m British, but that doesn’t mean I love talking about the weather. To be honest, we only do it to fill the gaps in conversation. It’s something we all have in common. But does it set a scene? Is it necessary? Could we not just show Jane rushing to work, annoyed that her hair is getting frizzy in the rain? That has a purpose—not only does it reveal something about her character, but also creates a situation for which there will be consequences later in the story.
Use the weather to accentuate the mood or impact your characters; don’t use it to set the scene in the first place. It is lazy storytelling and a waste of words.
For a hundred years the crystal had been buried beneath an anonymous headstone; occupying an empty grave and unknown to the world. It was placed there by a powerful wizard and a curse left to protect it, lest its power be released. For whoever holds the crystal can control the minds of the foxes, leading them as an army. For a hundred years the curse had held, but on this day it broke with a whisper, on the century of its proclamation. As it lifted, a light rain slipped from the grey clouds overhead, and Jane was woken by her alarm.
All of that could be shown throughout the story. None of it needed to be said at the start. After a few pages perhaps Jane could visit her grandfather’s grave and slip on the grass, her hand plunging into a sinkhole where her fingers find the crystal. She doesn’t know what will happen when she holds it, so why should we? Foxes following her around is much more entertaining when we don’t know it’s the crystal controlling them. Plus, all the curse stuff could be figured out later in the tale.
Hide your exposition within your story. Show, don’t tell. And keep your aces up your sleeve for later—you don’t need to give it all away in the opening sentence.
4. Physical Description
Jane’s fiery red hair spilled out over the pillow. The morning sun lit her pale white skin with a gentle glow, accentuating the freckles on her nose. She was youthful, attractive, and appeared younger than her twenty-nine years. Although wrinkles had started to gather around her eyes they still pierced with a sapphire blue stare as they opened. That moment, as Jane’s alarm woke her from her slumber, the sun vanished behind a cloud and rain started to trickle down her window. The curse of the crystal had been released, not that she realised as she lifted her slight frame from the bed.
First of all, it doesn’t matter what Jane looks like. Her defining traits should be her character, not her appearance. Secondly, if any of it is necessary to the plot (e.g. the curse is prophesied to affect a woman with fiery red hair) then you show it during the first chapter instead of telling. Someone can comment on her hair, perhaps. Ask if she dyes it that fiery red colour, to which she replies that it is natural. The rest is all immaterial.
Use the bare minimum of physical description that you can get away with. Readers will create an image of how your character looks in their own mind—don’t try and rewrite their imaginations.
Enthusiastic teacher and mother-of-one Jane Smithson awoke to the sound of her Sony radio alarm as the sun disappeared and the rain began to fall on her window. She brushed her fiery red hair away from her eyes—now gaining wrinkles, although she still looked younger than twenty-nine—and sat up. At that moment the curse that had been bound by renowned professor of ancient history Dr Phillip Monger for a hundred years was set free, allowing the crystal that could control foxes to be uncovered. The curse, first cast two thousand years ago by a druid and purveyor of herbs named Artemis, had been waiting for a woman with hair of fire and skin of snow. Jane, who made clay pots in her spare time, wrinkled her freckled nose in the mirror and examined her sapphire-blue eyes as they stared back at her, little knowing that the curse was about to find her.
It’s just terrible, isn’t it? Name-dropping, particularly when coupled with “dinner-party introductions,” is a guaranteed way to put your readers off right away. Again, it all boils down to showing and not telling. Can we not see how she is enthusiastic, rather than being told? Or watch her in her job as a teacher? Or with her child? And the Doctor and the Druid probably don’t even need to be in the story at all, but if they do, then they can be discovered later.
Introduce names slowly, allowing the reader to get used to one before springing another upon them. Couple names with slight physical description (e.g. Bob with the limp) or character traits (e.g. Sally chewed her nails when she thought) but in a way that is showing, not telling. And don’t throw in all the facts you have about a character with their full name. It just reads awfully.
Finally, I must apologise if you have used any of these methods to start your story. I would highly advise you go back to them and change the opening. Honestly, it will help.
© 2016 J A DuMairier
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Originally from Thanet, J A DuMairier enjoys writing and long walks in the country.