Thursday, July 24, 2014


I have been doing a lot of first 10 pages critiques lately, and I find myself writing…START YOUR STORY and ACTIVATE YOUR STORY on almost 100% of the manuscripts. Choosing where to start you story is so very important in grabbing your reader and willing him to keep reading, captivating him so he cannot put your book down.

Unfortunately, so many writers start in the wrong place. They start in what seems to me like they are talking to themselves, working out what is happening or who their characters are or what the back story is and putting that in the first chapters rather than starting where the book needs to begin. Starting right before everything changes for your main character.

Right before? Yes, I know you have heard so many times to start in the action, to start at the moment your character’s life is about to change, but by doing this we often do now know who your character is so we don’t care that their life is changing. We don’t care about who they are or what is their peril.

Don’t start by describing what is going on. Don’t start by having your main character ‘think’ about/tell us about all that is happening in their life. Don’t start with shot from a gun, waking from a bad dream, dialog of people fighting, random thoughts from your character that does not activate your plot and bring the character and the reader into the character’s world. Don’t write a passive, telling, descriptive beginning.

START YOUR STORY. Show your character in his world, interacting with other characters that give us a glimpse into who your character is, what problem is he facing and why this problem means something to him, and to us the reader.

In one of my favorite books, Gayle Foreman’s IF I STAY, Gayle does not start the book at the moment of the car crash. We first see the family together, we actually fall in love with the main character and her family so when the car crash happens, we are devastated along with the main character. Gayle starts the first line of the book with an intriguing sentence….a sentence that activates us to pay attention to this first meeting with the main character’s family. That foreshadows the doom and gloom to come:

Everyone thinks it is because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.

And then we are back in her world.  A world where the main character is not telling us what is happening but shows us through other characters’ actions and dialog, as well as her own.

Look back at the first pages of THE HUNGER GAMES, SPEAK, LOOKING FOR ALASKA, DRAMA QUEENS IN THE HOUSE, STARGIRL, SWEET EVIL the list goes on and on.

These are captivating beginnings that establish voice, character, plot, setting without plunging us blindly into the ‘problem’, the ‘crisis’. They also do not bore us with little details that talk down to the reader to make sure they are going to ‘get it’, that make sure the reader knows everything they need to know so they can follow your story.

Often you have to finish your book so you can rewrite/re-envision your beginning. Often you have to toss out your first couple of chapters. Do not mourn those lost words.  Thank them for helping you get started, for helping you understand where you book is going, for activating you to write rather than spend your years like so many wannabees saying I have a story I want to write but I just don’t know where to start. Congrats. You started. You got to the end. Now rewrite that beginning. Activate your story.

*originally posted in 2010. Still holds true:)


  1. Great post!

    You said it so much more elegantly that I ever could!


  2. Well put, Jill. It's the first time I've heard it expressed in quite that way - not "start with action" but "activate your story". A nice distinction, clearly explained, with fab examples. Keep 'em coming!

  3. Great post! That first chapter is so important.

  4. Thanks, this info is so relevant for me right now. I am revising and but too much of early story out to start with action, but now need to put some "just before" back in to introduce characters.

  5. Thanks! I been struggling with this lately! I need all the help I can get!

  6. Greatest advice ever. It's so important to strike that perfect balance when you start a novel...everything is knew and the urge to explain is great. Relaxing and letting the story unfold, trusting that your reader will fall in step with you is definitely a learned skill!

    I have paid more attention to my opening scene than any other, and I revise it as I write, shifting the focus so it stays in tune with what I am still learning about my main character.
    Thank you for such good advice and a great blog!

  7. Great advice - this is so important. I'm glad you took the time to explain it so well. Thank you!
    (Sorry about the deleted post above.)

  8. Great post! I love the line "activate your story". Thank you.

  9. Thank you for your advice and explanation. Very timely for me and something that I needed to hear. Now it is time to roll up the sleeves and rewrite that first chapter.

  10. This post is perfect! I recently revised my beginning, cutting 10 full chapters. (Ouch, that hurt)But now, my beginning is soooooo much stronger. And you know what? I was able to make up those 10 chapters with better writing.

  11. This is great advice. I have a follow-up question, if I may: How long, on average, would you say is a good time to get to the point where everything changes? I assume it should be within the first chapter, but should it be within the first five pages? First ten? Any thoughts would be much appreciated.

    - Liz

  12. I so needed to hear this!

    "Often you have to toss out your first couple of chapters. Do not mourn those lost words. Thank them for helping you get started"

  13. Wonderful post... states it in a way that makes perfect sense:-)

    God Bless,

  14. I hope I never forget this post. I also hope I can use it well.

  15. More and more the manuscripts that cross my desk suffer from starting with the action. I think that advice has been given out to prevent backfill or adding a "front porch" or wandering around in search of a story, but--as Jill so correctly--says, if you start with the action before the reader cares about the main character, the reader's response will be "Who cares?"

    My best advice is to study the hero's journey as it relates to fiction and start in the hero's ordinary world, just before something happens that will change his life in a significant way. One of the best books I know for learning about the journey is Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey.

  16. Great reminder! I'm sitting on the couch outlining my next story (this is always the fun part for me) and I really needed this reminder.

  17. Whoa momma! That was just about perfect. I particularly like that last bit about allowing yourself to write all those bad beginnings cause they got you started. That post was good to the last drop! (Coffee ad reference, for all you kids out there.)

  18. Adding Lee Wind's wonderful comment that he left on facebook:

    Lee Wind
    Hey Jill - I loved this post! You said it very well. So often we have to wade our way into a story to figure out where it's going, and only then can we swim... It's why I try to tell people NOT to show their first pages before they've ac...tually finished the entire first draft. Because it's rare that making it to the end doesn't change your beginning. At least for me! I think another idea is that for your character, nothing is NEW - unless they're waking up from amnesia. they're in the middle of dealing with stuff, and NOT explaining it all, but rather showing us what's going on as they are in the middle of it, is a great way to make an opening pretty riveting, even if the big ACTION moment opener is still to come. I used to want to start all my books off like James Bond movies - open BIG - but that only worked because we kind of knew who he was and what was going on. (usually) As you said so eloquently, you need some set-up to care. It's definitely an art! Thanks for sharing,
    Namaste and a Hug,

  19. Excellent advice! You've done a great job of describling the difference between intriguing the reader and starting with an action scene.

  20. Great post! I shared it on facebook because I found it useful and hope my friends do, too.

    Beginnings are so hard, and often people tell us what NOT to do. I liked your suggestions and examples for what TO do. Thank you!

  21. Great post. Thanks for this. I've been thinking a lot about beginnings lately and wrestling with my first chapter.

    I have a question: Is it ever acceptable to start AFTER the life-changing event. Jandy Nelson does this effectively in The Sky is Everywhere, but is her beginning an exception to the rule? I can see why she did it: she wanted to unfold the sister's character slowly, not introduce her right away. It worked for me in her case, but if you have time to give your thoughts on this approach, I would so appreciate it.


  22. Great post

    Hence thats why writers are advised to begin their story in media res. (Daunting as that seems..)

  23. Thanks so much, Jill. I am in the process of revising my first chapter in just this way. And I extra super so much appreciate the detail and specifics in this post.

    Back to work now...

  24. I think that you make an excellent point. The first chapter is often the hardest.

    Recently I've read a lot of great opening lines and paragraphs. My favorites are the ones that grab you and give you a taste of the plot and the characters in a calm state. It's like the ascent of the roller coaster. You're tempted to enjoy the view and the quiet but you can't calm the expectation of what's next!

  25. ohsnap
    I'm so glad i found this post. I just started writing a first draft, and everything is clearer to me now. o-o lucky I didn't find this post when I was halfway done haha.

    Thanks for this!

  26. I've been struggling with this very issue. Nice to hear another perspective!

  27. Well said, Jill. I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to scream as I've learned all of the back story and setup prior to ever meeting the character...or, on the flip side, jumped right into the action but didn't care a fig because I had no emotional investment in the character yet. It's a fine line, and I believe the first chapter(s) jitters can only be alleviated by finishing the book and going back to the beginning. Trying to polish those first few chapters without having the whole thing written is a recipe for spinning wheels. It's also the reason I ask to review manuscripts in their entirety rather than just the first three chapters--if I like it, I don't want to wait for the remaining chapters to make it to my desk; if I don't like it, I can skip beyond the halfway mark and determine if it's a project worth salvaging. I can't tell you how many published novels out there have lost their original first chapters over the course of editing. It's part of the process. And if you look at those "lost words" as having gotten you started, it makes letting go a little easier.

  28. Yes! I can't be reminded too often or in too many ways. Thanks, Jill. Well said.

  29. Great post, Jill. I'm revising my beginning right now and this reminder is ever-so-helpful.

  30. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing you thoughts!

  31. About 80% of all the critiques I do and ALL of my own first drafts start in the wrong place...

  32. Thanks for sharing. I am rethinking my MG novel and this will help.

  33. Very helpful post! Thank you Jill!



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