Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Should You Start Your Story at the Beginning?

Guest post by Dana Rongione

In the beginning of the story, you must establish your main character and the basic plot of the story. The beginning of your story should grasp your reader's attention. It has been said that because of the attention spans of people today, you have only 3-5 seconds to capture their attention. That's not much time.

For this reason, your first sentence must be a powerful one-a hook, as we writers call it. It must capture the reader's attention so that they will want to keep reading. A boring first sentence or first paragraph will leave the reader tossing the book on the table or placing it back on the bookshelf. Obviously, that is not what we want. No matter how good your story is, if you fail to hook your reader with your beginning, your story will probably go unread.

Here are a few examples of good beginnings that hook the reader and immediately draw him into the story:

Nothing ever starts where we think it does. So of course this doesn't begin with the vicious and cowardly murder of an FBI agent and good friend named Betsey Cavalierre. I only thought that it did. My mistake, and a really big and painful one. - Violets Are Blue, James Patterson

Notice in this example, the author tells you that the story doesn't start where you think it does or even where the main character thought it did. This leaves you wondering where the story actually begins, as well as intrigued by the knowledge that you'll be helping to solve a crime.

The New England woodcarver Jacob Adams was having a lean year- as lean and unprofitable, he thought, as if the Devil himself had a hand in it. If Jacob Adams had been born two hundred and thirty years later, he would simply have thought, Business is lousy. - Ghost Ship, Dietlof Reiche

In this example, you, as the reader, are intrigued by the last sentence. Why would Jacob have thought differently at present than he would have 230 years later? What led him to believe that the Devil himself had a hand in his lean and unprofitable year? In just one short paragraph, you are left with questions that beg to be answered.

Winter's chill hung in the air like thousands of polished silver shards, poised to fall soundlessly to the ground. A young woman stood in the midst of the chill, heedless of its potential to harm her, and motionless, as if simply breathing in and out was all she could manage. She remained there for quite some time, fighting visibly to keep herself upright. In time, she took a careful step forward, only to rest again, still breathing raggedly, still adding to the frost. - The Mage's Daughter, Lynn Kurland

Again, the author begins in the middle of the story, leaving you feeling like you must read on to figure out what's happening. Who is this young woman? Why is she so weak? What happened to her? Will she be alright?

Many new writers are under the impression that at the beginning of the story they have to spill out, in great detail, everything that they know about the main character and the plot of the story. Big mistake! This will cause your readers to feel as if you're simply throwing bits of information at them and expecting them to make sense of it. Character development and plot development can take place later in the story. It can be worked in as you go along. Don't give in to the temptation to deliver all your facts on the first few pages of your book or first few paragraphs of your story. If you do, you leave your reader with nothing to look forward to, and therefore, no reason to finish reading.

Dana Rongione is a full-time Christian author, speaker, and writing coach living in Greenville, SC. She offers a wide variety of writing services, including e-classes and personal coaching. For free writing prompts, tips, and quotes, visit

For daily encouragement, check out her blog, A Word Fitly Spoken.


  1. Excellent examples. I agree the beginning is the hardest part for new writers, I try to emphasise your options of beginnings when I'm teaching high school kids to write fiction. They usually start with the character getting out of bed that day, having their breakfast....
    Love the pic too :-)

  2. Charmaine,

    I agree. The creative writing assignments my teachers created for me were instrumental in the formation of the foundation of my craft. Teaching should be the highest paid profession.

  3. Neat examples. I'm reworking the start of one of my novels, so thanks for the timely help.


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