Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 55: Beginning Your Story Too Late
Story beginnings are fraught with important decisions. But perhaps none of those decisions is more important than the question of when to begin your story. Too early or too late—either one can prevent readers from engaging with the story and obsessively reading on to find out what happens.
Perhaps the more common mistake is beginning your story too early (which I’ve talked about before). But beginning your story too late is just as problematic.
As a reader, Abby, commented to me:
In my story, I don’t really have the problem of having started too early. I feel like I haven’t started early enough. The hook I have feels a lot like the inciting event. My protagonist can’t really turn back after the events I start off with, not without great risk. How can I tell if it starts too late?
6 Signs You’re Beginning Your Story Too Late
If you have a sadly sinking suspicion you might be beginning your story too late, consider the following signs. If even one of them resonates, chances are good your story will benefit from a little more space in its opening chapters.
1. You Were Determined to Begin In Medias Res
This is the most common reason for authors’ beginning their stories too late. “You must begin in medias res” (or “in the middle of things”) is common advice. Or how about: “Begin your story as late as possible to get readers right into the action.” Or, “cut the throat clearing.” Or simply, “cut your first chapter altogether.”
Although none of this is inherently bad advice, it can lead authors to the misconception that they’re supposed to chop out the majority of their story’s important set-up. The result is a story that feels about the same as when you start watching a TV show in the second season: somethin’s missing.
2. Your Characters Hit the Ground Running and Never Look Back
The result of extreme and injudicious in medias res is that the characters are in action from page one without a pause to explain themselves, their motives, their backstory, their relationships, or even their reasons for engaging with the antagonistic force.
Too often in today’s MTV-influenced entertainment world, the emphasis on fast pacing and “action” leads authors to believe readers will be bored by all that background/set-up stuff. If we don’t give readers car chases, shoot-’em-ups, steamy romance, and smart-talking heroes on every single page every single paragraph, then surely they’ll glaze out and return to watching HISHE on YouTube.
While it’s definitely true you need to craft a gripping opening that relentlessly grabs readers’ attention, the ironic part is that without the necessary setup in the beginning your book, readers are even more likely to grow bored and give up. All this background/setup/subtext stuff is what provides the foundation for character building—which is what creates fascinating characters readers can identify with—which is what keeps them from ignoring all those attention-sucking notifications popping up on their phones.
3. Your Characters Never Really Experience a “Normal World”
Authors sometimes get fidgety about the idea of introducing a “Normal World” in their story’s opening. Normal is so . . . boring, right?
The first thing to understand about the Normal World is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be “normal” in the same sense as our own world. Normal doesn’t mean “mundane” or “everyday.” It’s only normal in contrast to the “adventure world” the character will be entering in the Second Act after engaging with the main conflict.
The Normal World is meant to provide contrast with all the interesting scrapes and stakes in remaining 3/4ths of the story. Without this contrast, the adventure world will fail to seem quite so adventurous.
But isn’t the Normal World still a poor way to hook readers? Not at all. Done skillfully, the portentous sense of irony within the Normal World—as it sets up the changes to come—is an incredibly effective way to hook readers’ curiosity and pull them deeper into the character’s plight.
4. Your Characters Feel Undeveloped
When you skip out on the Normal World, you also skip out on your ability to set up the all-important First Act in your character’s developing arc. You cannot effectively show a character changing unless you first demonstrate the need for change. A well-developed First Act gives you the opportunity to show readers who your character is before he encounters the adventure of the main conflict.
Without this setup, characters will too often start out feeling fully formed, as if readers missed out on the most interesting part of their growth. Even when the characters do demonstrate change, it will feel incomplete and unconvincing because it will be lacking its most fundamental ingredients of contrast.
5. Your Subsequent First Act Turning Points Are Comparatively Weak
When you begin your story at full throttle, how can you possibly hope to raise the ante from there? There’s a reason story theorists talk about “rising action.” Readers expect a story to only get hotter as it goes. If you spend all your big bucks in the beginning and have nothing but change left for the Climax, readers will be disappointed. In fact, the bigger your opening, the higher their expectations for the rest of the book—and the greater their disillusionment if those expectations are met with a fizzle instead of a bang.
One of the easiest ways to know if you’ve given readers too much too soon is to look at the rest of the First Act. You should be seeing a steady rise in tension and action.
The First Act is composed of three important turning points—the Hook in the first chapter, the Inciting Event halfway through at the 12% mark, and the First Plot Point at the juncture between First Act and Second Act at the 25% mark.
Each of these road marks should demonstrate a steady rise in stakes and activity, until the whole thing breaks wide open at the First Plot Point and hurtles the protagonist into the main action of the Second Act.
If you begin your story too late, you’re probably beginning with an event that would have been more properly placed later in the First Act. As Abby talks about in the question at the beginning of the post, if you begin with your story’s Inciting Event or First Plot Point, you’ll be throwing off your entire structural arc, and you’ll be struggling to compensate the pacing right from go. Not fun for you and not fun for readers.
6. You Run Out of Steam Halfway Through the Story
By the same token, if you begin your story by leaving out the crucial beginning section, you’ll likely find that even if you manage to make it through the First Act, your entire story will begin to fizzle out halfway through. Either your character will find himself in the final confrontation with the antagonist way too soon, or you’ll realize you have to start throwing in unnecessary delaying scene after delaying scene to prevent him from reaching this looming climactic scene.
Beginning your story in the right spot isn’t only about choosing the optimal scene to hook readers. Just as importantly, it’s about choosing the right scene to properly set up the sequence of scenes to follow throughout the entire remainder of the book. Choose wrong in the beginning and it will affect everything you write after that.
2 Ways to Choose the Right Place to Open Your Story
If any of the above signs strike you with a little too much familiarity, it may be time to reevaluate your opening. How can you make sure to choose exactly the right spot to open your story?
There are two primary considerations in choosing the right opening scene.
1. Evaluate Your Story Structure
As you’ve likely gleaned from the above list of problems, the biggest concerns with opening your story in the wrong spot come down to one thing: structure. Fortunately, you can flip that on its head and know that if you get your story structure right, you can be pretty sure you’re opening in the right place.
In particular, you’ll want to examine the structure of your First Act. Look for the biggest pieces first then work your way down.
Where Does It Belong? 25% Mark (Between First and Second Acts)
The is the first capital-B “Big” firework in your story. This is the first doorway of no return, in which your protagonist exits his Normal World and irrevocably enters the main conflict. This is typically a dramatic and memorable scene:
- The character loses someone he cares about.
- The character arrives in a new setting.
- The character enters a new relationship.
Or any host of other life-changing circumstances. The point is they are life-changing. Indeed, these circumstances are the entire purpose of the story. This is the biggest thing ever to happen in the protagonist’s life up to now. This is why you’re telling this story and not some other moment in her life.
As such, you optimally want the First Plot Point to also be the biggest moment in the story up to this point. If the opening chapter is bigger, you probably began too late and need to back off to provide some context.
Where Does It Belong? 12% Mark (Halfway Through First Act)
The Inciting Event is the moment when your protagonist experiences his first substantial encounter with the main conflict. This is the Call to Adventure in which he is “summoned” by the the primary adventure, but either personally resists engaging with it or is prevented by some outside circumstance.
- The character is offered something he wants, but is held back by fears or responsibilities.
- The character leaves his Normal World unhappily (or at least with others unhappy on his behalf).
- The character officially meets a person who will change her life.
This is the moment that sets up the big fireworks of the First Plot Point. As such, it’s rarely as big as the First Plot Point, but should also be bigger than what has come before. From this point until the end of the First Act, the intensity, action, and stakes will be steadily rising, leading to that point of no return.
It’s a common misconception that you should begin your story with the Inciting Event. After all, isn’t that the first thing of importance to happen? Isn’t this the first domino in your plot’s row of dominoes? Yes and no. Yes, it’s the first time the character directly engages with the conflict, but it’s rarely the first pertinent event. Stories almost always require a little context in order for the Call to Adventure to make sense. There will usually be a series of 3-6 events laying the groundwork for this moment and those to follow.
3. THE HOOK
Where Does It Belong? 1% (First Chapter)
The Hook is the very first domino you need in order for the Inciting Event and First Plot Point to make sense. It is an event that is pertinent to the main conflict, but also one that introduces the character in his Normal World, as he is before his life is changed by the main conflict.
This could be:
- The character unwittingly obtaining an object or information the antagonistic force wants.
- The character’s world being endangered by the antagonistic force in some comparatively small way for the first time.
- The character demonstrating something lacking in her life.
Will this be a low-key scene? In comparison to what follows, yes, it often is. But that doesn’t mean it can’t still be (and, indeed, must be) a gripping moment in the character’s life all in its own right.
2. Choose a Gripping Hook
And that brings us to the second requirement of a properly placed opening—and also the trickiest. If you can’t open with your First Act’s biggest guns, then how are you supposed to grab readers’ attention right off the bat?
Well, that’s the trick, ain’t it?
It requires creativity, precision, and planning. But what part of good storytelling doesn’t?
The keys to creating a gripping hook are to:
1. Introduce Your Protagonist in a Characteristic Moment
Choose an event that proves to readers why they should be interested in, care about, or relate to this person. Always start with the character in motion, pursuing a goal.
2. Introduce Your Character’s Driving Motivation
And what is driving your character’s opening scene goal? Tie it in with the motive that will fuel him throughout the story. He may not have realized his primary story goal yet, but he will be primed to resonate with that goal on a deeply personal level, thanks to his backstory and driving desires.
3. Introduce the Primary Dilemma of Your Protagonist’s Normal World
Remember that sense of irony I talked about in regard to the protagonist’s Normal World? That irony results from the inner conflict (however subtle) between the character’s Wants and Needs—and the obstacles presented by the Normal World that are currently preventing him from gaining them.
4. Create a Question in Readers’ Minds
You can use that subtle dichotomy—between where the character currently finds himself and where he wants to go and will be going—to create a sense of curiosity in readers.Something is slightly “off” about the character’s world and/or his goal in the opening chapter. This is your Hook. This is how you draw readers in.
The scene might include:
- A big and important event. For example, Anne Shirley arriving in Avonlea in Anne of Green Gables.
- A comparatively inconsequential event that serves primarily to present a microcosm of the larger conflict that’s coming. For example, Ender fighting the bullies in Ender’s Game.
Finding the right opening for your story isn’t an exact science, if only because each story’s rhythms and requirements will be slightly different. But as you can see, there are sturdy guidelines you can follow in narrowing your options and determining whether you’ve opened your story too soon, too late, or in just the right place to grab readers and prepare them for the wonderful adventure to follow.