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Common Mistakes in Story Beginnings

By Amy Bennet

So many times I have seen a promising science fiction, fantasy, or horror, story fall flat, because there’s no tension in the beginning. The author starts out describing the character, their history, and the history of their civilization in loving detail. But that in itself is not compelling.

What is?

Humans like problems. We like to see other people struggle through their problems. We sympathize with that struggle. It is through a character solving their problems, or failing to solve their problems, that we come to really care about them. You don’t care about, for example, Luke Skywalker because you know what year Luke was born and where he went to school and how much it cost on his home planet to dry-clean a shirt. If you care about him it’s because you remember him as a kid in the pod racer, or you remember his lessons with Yoda, or his struggle with Darth Vader, or that moment as he approaches the Death Star. But new authors can, I think, fall in love with their story so much that they imagine the reader will be as enchanted as they are with the history and details of the world and the characters they have created. This is especially true in science fiction, fantasy, and horror, where the worlds are so special that they can be very deserving of love. It can take a long time and many drafts to build a good world, but building a world is not the same thing as telling a story. It can also be intimidating to write a full length novel of 100,000 words. Maybe writers think, “I should start slow, introduce the character!” But that’s not what the reader, or the editor, or the agent, wants to see.

The reader wants to get to know the character, absolutely, because the reader wants to root for the character. But this happens through dialogue, action, and the character working to solve their problems. Show me details that let me see how the world really works. But most importantly, show me a character who has a compelling problem. It could be a very small problem on page one, for example, the character realizes he’ll be late to work, but it ought to snowball into larger problems that eventually turn out to be related. That is the core of plot, and it starts at the beginning.

One comment

  1. Jacob Wolcott says:

    Absolutely love this!! I watched a show a few months ago that for all it’s flaws (and there were many) it absolutely nailed the thriller part to the point that it was almost exclusively about the protagonist’s suffering. I enjoyed the heck out of it. I had been wondering about this, so reading this article was a real treat. One thing though that stood out to me though just because I’m a huge Star Wars nut, is that it was Anakin, not Luke, that did the racing. (I know, sooo important.)

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