4 Ways NOT To Begin Your Novel, or the Meaning of Show Don’t Tell.

Oh sure, there are millions of posts about how to write your novel. This is not one of those posts. In fact, I’m barely gonna tell you how NOT to write your novel, despite the title of this post. I mean, c’mon. I’m not a published author, which seems to be the only credential that matters these days (for the record, I haven’t tried to get published with any recent work).

But here’s the thing. As much as being a writer is part of who I am, so is being a reader. And a reader knows what works and what doesn’t. I know within the first 2 pages, and sometimes sooner, whether I’m going to continue reading a book. Here’s a list of things that I know, as a reader and a writer, don’t work when beginning your novel.

1. Don’t begin with back story. Seriously, don’t. I don’t want to open up my book and read a history on this character that I’ve never met and don’t care about. You  know what I care about? Action. I care about what characters do. What they do gives me insight into who they are – back story is just exposition. If you need to give back story, and lets face it, most fiction does need back story at some point, don’t do it in the first five pages. Give back story once we care, and the desire to know more has been instilled in us.

2. Don’t begin with Melodrama. Okay, so you didn’t begin with back story. That’s great. What did you start with? A hysterical woman crying over the body of her husband who’s just been shot? A woman screaming, “Why, Herbert? Why did they take you from me?!”

This, again, falls into the category of “I don’t care”. You’ve begun with the opposite of back story – you’ve started your story with a heart wrenching scene that should make your readers weep. Right? But no. Because I still don’t know who this person is. I didn’t know Herbert and his hysterical wife. Just like back story can feel bland and pointless, starting of with melodrama is jolting and eye-roll causing. What do I care about? Action. I don’t know this person well enough to share their emotional pain yet.

3. Don’t begin in the middle of an action sequence. But, but, Hannah! You just said to start with action! Well, yes, I did say that. But I didn’t mean in the middle of a high speed chase where our hero is being shot at by the mob. Yes, this is action, but no momentum has been built. You’re throwing me into the middle of the good part without giving me the awesome buildup.  So why do I care? The scariest bits of a scary movie are not the parts where the main character’s bff is shredded, but the dark areas in between, when the audience is just waiting with bated breath for the ambush. So when you throw me into the middle of the shredding, you’ve robbed me of the delicious build up to that moment.

4. Don’t begin with a Prologue. I know many will argue with me on this one too, and in special cases, a prologue works. Special cases. Emphasis on the special. Prologues are kind of similar to beginning your story with info dump back story, except that often people will write them as flashbacks, or find some clever way of giving the back story that isn’t just blatantly giving back story. I’ve seen books that give me a flashback to a character that doesn’t even show up in the rest of the story – oh, but he/she is important because he knew Hero’s mom and whispered four words into her before dying suddenly. Those four words are what changes Hero’s life. Well, then, it must be okay! It’s the catalyst for the rest of the story! Here’s my advice to you: Find a different way.

There’s an art to beginning a novel. Why do you think it’s so hard to get past those first few pages? Here’s what you have to remember: in those first few pages, you want to make your reader care enough about the hero to continue reading. How you do that is up to you – just remember that readers don’t want you to tell them how to feel. They want you to show them. And that means action.

Can you think of any other bad ways to begin a novel?

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