Updated: Mar 14
For any story, the beginning is as, if not more, important than the ending. A bad ending leaves your readers with a bitter taste in their mouths. A bad beginning will make sure there are no readers left by the halfway point.
I’ve had novels that have caught my eye with the cover, hooked me in with the blurb only to have any interest dry up and crawl right back up inside me after the first few pages.
Before we get into this week’s post (even though this should be obvious) this list is based on my personal opinion. If you think of any possible items that I’ve missed be sure to let me know down in the comments below or on my socials.
Lastly, this list comes with the overarching caveat that any of these could be a great way to start a story if it’s done well or there’s a unique twist in its implementation.
Let’s jump in!
1. In Medias Res
According to encyclopedia Britannica, “In Medias Res” or “in the midst of things” is the practice of beginning a story by plunging into a crucial situation that is part of a related chain of events which then develops forward with earlier event exposition supplied by flashbacks.
Movies use this a lot where they start the movie with an action-heavy scene as a promise that the movie gets exciting after all the boring talky bits. In novels, this is normally a way for the author to jump straight into the action and worry about introducing characters and the world of the story at a later date.
I get the appeal and thought process behind using this method. Hook readers in with some high-intensity action and get them asking a bunch of questions and go from there.
The shame is that normally when this high-intensity scene ends, the author uses this as a chance to crowbar in all the exposition that would have started the novel off with. All at once. Without a second to take it all in.
The dramatic shift in pace can give me so much whiplash that even if the initial hook got me invested, eventually I’ll just give up and read something better.
The best way I could think to use this beginning is to start with a quick action scene and slowly drop little breadcrumbs of exposition as you go instead of dumping it all at once.
This is similar to the In Medias Res entry but diverges once we get into the finer details.
These flashbacks and flashforwards are more interruptions to the main story instead of a set starting point. These are used in a lot of novels normally as prologues to set up backstory, context, or some future potential conflict or event.
The jarring shift from these time skips to the main story is quite frustrating to me because you can just as easily take the backstory and exposition and meld it into the main story as exposition spread throughout the novel.
Again, like with In Medias Res, I get the appeal of using this as it could potentially draw readers in with questions.
I just feel like the shift between the two time periods would just be too frustrating for most readers to stick around unless you hook them in straight away.
3. Inner Monologue
Inner monologues are a great way to get inside the heads of characters and develop their goals, worldview, relationships, and many other things that can help to ingratiate your readers to them.
However, most people forget that you have to take time to build up these characters over the course of the novel.
You can’t just dump it all at once. I have never had a story that I’ve enjoyed that starts with a massive inner monologue from the main character and lays all their cards on the table straight away.
It’s such a boring way to develop characters. Straight up telling your readers everything about your character right away rips out any mystery or intrigue your characters have.
You end up either relying solely on the plot as a crutch or add more characters which can get out of hand quickly.
4. Dream Sequence
(c) Mr. Movie.
Now we’re touching on one of the most misleading, cliché, over-done, and just boring ways to start a story.
Dream sequences can have merit during the story if you really need to rush through some character backstory or dump some exposition and you’ve got a quiet chapter with nothing going on.
Personally, these just pull me out of the story and makes me feel like the author is just trying to bump up their word count.
Normally, the bad dream sequence falls into one of two categories.
The author can lean too far into creating a realistic sequence which leads to bizarre jumps with no internal logic to link the pieces together and the reader ends up getting lost during it.
The second option is probably the lesser of the two evils. With this option, the author will try and ground the dream sequence with too much logic, losing the fantastical elements of the dream and with it the spark that can make these sequences so enthralling when done correctly.
5. The Main Character Waking Up
This is easily the most overused and worst possible way to start a story.
We read stories to escape reality, for adventure, for action that we don’t get in our mundane lives.
You know what we don’t read stories for?
To be reminded about the extremely tedious minutia that we indulge ourselves in every second of every day.
It’s the reason that hardly any published novels have the story starting with the character waking up with a yawn and then deciding what clothes to wear, then getting themselves ready in the morning, and then…
Sorry, I just passed out of boredom at my keyboard.
Using this start for your novel shows just a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of stories and sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
Again, like I said at the beginning, some of these can be done really well in some cases but if we weigh up the good and the bad… best just to avoid using them.
But what did you guys think? Do you disagree with my list? Are there any beginnings that I missed out?
Let me know in the comments down below.
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