do and don't · how to get a request for pages · writing problems

Where to start your book

One of the most frequent problems with opening pages is that they start in the wrong place.

Imagine if THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING opened with the nine companions leaving Rivendell. We wouldn’t know about Bilbo. We wouldn’t see the Council of Elrond. We wouldn’t know Aragorn is a friend we can rely on or have firsthand experience with the Nazgul.

Starting too late leaves the reader confused. We don’t know who is who, what is going on, or why it matters. The relationships feel awkward because the book shoves us into encounters we don’t understand.

There’s the opposite problem.

Imagine if ROSEMARY AND RUE opened before October follows Simon to the Tea Gardens. We’d watch her solve irrelevant mysteries. She’d spend time with her husband and daughter, whom we never see again. We’d witness her working the Luna and Raysel abduction case, but someone else solves it.

It’d be confusing and disappointing.

Starting too early is boring. Unimportant things happen. We get our hopes up that such-and-such will jumpstart the plot, but it doesn’t. We wait around wondering why we should care.

To keep from starting early, avoid backstory. Don’t show us the aliens watching earth or our superheroine at her daily routine. I don’t care. Start me at the point where unusual things begin to occur.

There should be something out of the ordinary on page 1.

On the flip side, don’t start me in the middle of action. Don’t push me into the middle of a fight with characters I don’t know yet. I have no stakes in the battle, so I don’t care who wins. There’s no tension.

Opening a book in media res is fine. But that action shouldn’t be the inciting incident.

Start the protagonist doing whatever she’s doing when she finds out about the aliens. She’s in the office working. Don’t give me a run-down of her whole day, but open that first paragraph with her at her desk. She’s typing up a progress report, bored as always. Until —

Something happens. That’s your next paragraph. And then you go from there.

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