How NOT to Begin a Book


Last week I wrote about the various things a first chapter(s) needs to achieve for a book’s narrative. This week, I am going to give some examples of what NOT to do, inspired by some recent reading experiences of mine.

You know the writing advice you hear constantly: “cut the backstory”? Well, this first book is a perfect example of why.

In the first 4 chapters, at least 50% of the page space was taken up with flashbacks or musings on past events. So little happened in the present day part of the story – it was just pages after pages of what had happened 14 years ago. And my God it was boring. Any time something began to happen in the present day, the character would stop to ruminate on the past events that got them there.

I got the purpose – there was a major night in the character’s past that was effecting present day. But there would have been a much more interesting way of introducing that to the audience.

Rather than have the hero and heroine finally meet 25% into the story (again, boring for a romance) they should have met on page one. By necessity, it would have been a fraught reunion. They both loved and hated each other, for completely valid reasons. And it would have been interesting. Then, over time, the reader could learn why there was so much tension between them.

But, alas, this was not what we got. And I lost interest pretty quick.

So, start with something interesting, and intrigue the reader with what events lead to the characters being in that situation. Or, if the backstory truly is the most interesting part of your story, then start the book there. Nora Roberts has started doing this a lot—having the first third or so of the book be an extended prologue—and I find it perfectly interesting.

The other sin that I read recently was a book that introduced what felt like 3,000 characters in the first two chapters.

In this particular book, by the time I was halfway through chapter 2, I had met at least eight—count ‘em eight—important secondary characters. This doesn’t even include the Hero and Heroine. Talk about overwhelming!

The fact that I was supposed to remember all of these people, their names, and their relationships with each other was mind boggling.

It is important to give the reader time to breathe between each character introduction, or piece of important information. This is particularly essential in a romance. The writer must give priority to developing the two main characters and their interaction. If you want to use the book to set up future romances, fine, but it should never be at the expense of the main relationship.

I will say that how your main character interacts with other people can be very revealing for their personality, so I’m certainly not saying you can’t feature any other characters in your opening chapter.

But just think about how many of those people need to be there. I could have culled about five of those eight with no trouble, and the book would have made a hell of a lot more sense.

Personally, I try to only introduce one or two secondary characters at a time. Each of them leaves the page while I let the main characters recharge, and then I might introduce another character down the track. This keeps the focus on the hero and heroine, and doesn’t confuse the reader.

So, my takeaways. a) keep backstory to the bare minimum until you’ve got the reader hooked, (even then, use it sparingly) and b) don’t overwhelm the reader upfront with too many characters. Keep it simple and streamlined where possible, or you’ll end up with a bloated, boring mess.

What are your pet hates in the beginning of a book? Do you have any writing issues that would immediately make you put the book down?

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