“A good writer is basically a storyteller, not a scholar or a redeemer of mankind.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Great stories leave the starting gate flying — they have a momentum that carries us forward right away. They plunge us into a new world by offering a tantalizing taste of the adventure and emotional upheaval ahead. But coming up with a first paragraph, first page, and first chapter that deliver what readers crave — a bang not a whimper — takes true craft. Sure, there are some wonderful stories that start quietly and build from there — John Steinbeck’s East of Eden comes to mind — but most assertive authors strive to hook readers quickly and irretrievably.
The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack Bickham describes three opening chapter approaches that he believes can stall a story:
Too much description: If description dominates at the expense of character and action, the reader may sense a lack of energy and forward motion.
Too much background: If you begin with too much backstory, you sacrifice momentum and risk having the reader sense that you don’t know how to start.
Too much quiet: “Good fiction starts with — and deals with — someone’s response to threat,” says Bickman. Convey a sense of disturbance early.
Definitely food for thought! And here’s some more opening advice from that master storyteller, Anton Checkhov: “My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying…one must ruthlessly suppress everything that is not concerned with the subject. If, in the first chapter, you say there is a gun hanging on the wall, you should make quite sure that it is going to be used further on in the story.”
He should know!