Three Ways Not To Start Your Story

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When it comes to writing a book, sometimes it’s easier to look at the things you shouldn’t do than those you should. Here are some common mistakes writers make that you can easily avoid:

1. It was all a dream

When you start a story with a dream or a vision or something that doesn’t really happen, it makes the reader confused. What’s real? What’s not? Is the next chapter going to end this way too?
When someone chooses to read your book, they’re putting their faith in you as an author. By adding those five evil words (and then she woke up) you’re breaking the trust your reader has in you straight off the bat, and if your reader can’t trust you, why would they want to finish your novel

2. Stacey and the yellow pencil

One of my favourite quotes on writing is by the legendary Stephen King. He said: “The most important things to remember about back story are that a) everyone has a history, and b) most of it isn’t very interesting.
When I was in primary school, a girl named Stacey stole the yellow pencil from my best friend’s pencil tin (yes, this was in the days before iPads, kids. And don’t even get me started on how the phone stayed in one place in the home). Anyway, back to Stacey. I hated her. How could she do such a thing? Why did she think she was better than us? And how were we going to draw bees without that beautiful colour now?
When I met Stacey again as an adult, I still disliked her.
For all of about 2.4 nanoseconds.
Then I realised that I was remembering my six-year-old feelings for her, and that seriously, theft of a yellow pencil isn’t the worst offence.
We all have history. And, just like the story above, most of it isn’t super interesting. It might subtly affect things we do in the future (Oh, there’s Stacey. Should I say hi, or will she try steal my sunshine, too?) but it doesn’t always need to make it onto the page, and it certainly doesn’t need to make it into the first chapter of your book. That’s where you want readers to fall in love with you. To really care. You don’t want to dump back story in and risk boring them too early on, before they’ve decided your story is a keeper (note that I waited till point two for this anecdote).

3. It’s gonna be legen … wait for it … dary!

Here’s the thing about a good story: it hooks you in straight away. You don’t need a bomb exploding in the first scene, or a plane crashing (although the creator of Lost did okay out of that one). What you need is something big, some hint of drama—not days and days of establishing the normalcy of your characters before you throw them in the deep end.
We want to care for your characters before you torture them, absolutely. But we don’t want to see Johnny go to the supermarket, get fish and chips like he does every Friday, and sit and stare at the ocean as he eats them, contemplating his existence. That’s not setting the scene. That’s just boring. We don’t want to wait for the legendary story.
Take the advice of Maria from The Sound of Music: let’s start at the very beginning (check), a very good place to start. She doesn’t say let’s start at the very beginning, after we first establish a steady existence so we can shatter it. And you shouldn’t either.

Want more tips on how to start your story? Check out the Start Your Story Right OWL this January run by Lauren Clarke, editor, educator, and an author coach. For more information on her other products and services, visit

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