filed under How To Write A Book.

Last week I began a 2 part series about how to write the beginning of a novel by blogging about 10 things you should do. This week, it’s 10 things you shouldn’t do.

1. Backstory

Backstory is information about your character’s background, the background to the events of the story or the background to the key relationships in the story. It doesn’t belong in the first three chapters of your novel.

We want to get to know your character the way we get to know a person in real life. We don’t know everything about a person when we first strike up a friendship with them; half of the fun is in finding out those things over the course of the relationship. It’s the same with fiction.

We are happy to not know some things, we are happy to have those things filled in as we go on the journey of the book. Backstory slows the story down. Save it for when you need a moment of respite from the tension, a slowing of the pace. The beginning of a novel should be all forward moving action so you can engage the reader with your story and your characters.

2. Dreams

There is nothing worse than reading a chapter, with a vividly realised scenario, only to have the character wake up in chapter two and tell us it was all a dream. This does not allow us to form a connection to your character as they really are, or to the actual events of the story.

3. Excessive Description

We don’t need an overly detailed description of the geography and setting of the story in the first three chapters. Drip feed this information in by all means, but attach it to a character’s viewpoint, rather than giving it to us through the eye of God. If description is attached to a character’s viewpoint, then we’ll at least learn something about the character at the same time.

10 Things Not to Do In The Beginning Of Your Book: Advice For Writers | www.natashalester.com.au

4. Lack of focus

Things which cause a lack of focus are:

  • Too many characters
  • Too many story events, for instance, switching to a parallel narrative too early, before establishing the first narrative strand
  • Head-hopping from one point of view character to another
  • Too many locations

You want to have the reader settle in to your first three chapters rather than become confused and disorientated by not knowing which characters to focus on and which events are important.

5. Shopping Lists

Here’s what I mean by shopping lists: She had red hair, blue eyes, porcelain skin, one cute dimple and a huge smile. Her dress was long and flowery, her shoes were dainty and her toenails red. Bangles jingled on her arms, rings sparkled on her fingers and big hoop earrings hung from her ears.

In this sentence, I am giving you a shopping list of a character description. It’s much better to have the character in action, talking to another character, where her smile and dimple become apparent, or dancing in a way that makes her dress and bangles move. Integrate the description with the action, rather than separating it out into a long list.

6. Characters Doing Nothing

Washing dishes, staring out windows, looking at reflections in mirrors, looking at photo albums: these actions should be used with caution in your first three chapters.

Again, think about real life. Would you want to watch a person wash dishes or look at themselves in the mirror? No! So why would a reader want to do that in fiction?

You need to look at the actions your character is undertaking and make sure they are interesting and varied throughout the narrative, but most especially in the first three chapters.

7. Characters Reflecting on Their Current Situation

SHOW us their situation. If they’re in an abusive relationship, give us a scene where the partner abuses them, and then show us the effect it has on your character. If they’re ashamed, how can you show us their shame?

Try not to have your character simply thinking about the abuse, and thinking about being ashamed, and wishing they could make a change. Get out of their head and get them into a scene.

8. Flashback

Flashback isn’t a great idea in the first three chapters. We really need to get a good feel for your character’s present situation before we go jumping back in time. And, often, flashback is just a backhand way of getting in exposition, which we’ve already said should be minimal in the first three chapters.

9. Prologues

Prologues are a hotly debated topic. Some agents and publishers don’t like them at all, some don’t mind. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer other than to make sure you’re not using a prologue to dump backstory. Make sure the prologue raises important questions in the readers’ minds about the characters.

10. Spoon-feed the Reader

Trust your reader. They don’t need to know everything in the first three chapters of your book. In fact, they don’t want to know everything. The reason they’re reading your book is to find out the answers to the questions your fabulous opening chapters have raised.

Leave out more than you put in. Make sure this creates a compelling dramatic question that the reader is desperate to have answered – by the end of the book!

I hope this 2 part series on writing strong beginnings was worthwhile. Let me know what you think below. Do you ever do any of these things in the first draft of your books? I know I do. Which is why I love redrafting!

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89 Responses to “How to Write the Beginning of a Novel: 10 Things You Shouldn’t Do”

  1. Penelope Whitcombe

    Hi Natasha,
    I stand accused of abusing numbers 1,3 and 4. Your advice is about to be placed in a prominent position to serve as a reminder to REIN IT IN – thank you once more for your wonderful support and knowledge-sharing.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Penelope – like I said, I do many of these things too from time to time and it’s just as good a reminder for me as it is for anybody else. Glad you found it useful!

      Reply
  2. Jodie Sinclair

    My book is on hold while we move house, but I just love reading (and then absorbing) your wise and practical words. I plan how I will put them into practice as I pack yet another box (of books!) or sort my plastics cupboard. Thanks Natasha, you have such a skill and a generosity as a teacher!

    Reply
  3. Kailijade

    I am working on a story at the moment, having put my other manuscript firmly on hold as I had too many of these things in it. I think I shall print this out and stick it to my wall!

    Reply
  4. ktbuck

    Oh dear, what do you do when your story’s about a lonely old woman who writes? Her head’s where all the action is!

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      So long as the action in her head unfolds as action, rather than thought i.e. the stories in her head become stories on the page, then you should be okay.

      Reply
  5. Karen

    Yes, guilty as charged! I am definitely going to print this out, too! Thanks for not only explaining why we shouldn’t include the above in our beginnings but also explaining how to get around these problems. That’s the useful part for me – thanks, Natasha!

    Reply
  6. Keeran

    The looking into a mirror one I’ve done before, to describe a character. I know it’s a cliche, but couldn’t think of any other way to describe the POV character. Maybe I should just not describe him, but have the readers fill in the blanks. It’s hard to know what to do sometimes. I can’t describe him from another character’s POV; as I said, he’s the POV character. Yet to make commments like ‘He swept his short dark hair back’ sounds ludicrous. A problem many writers wrestle with, I’m sure.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Yes, you’re right, it is a problem. I’ve really started to lean more towards not describing the way my characters look much at all. I think most readers develop their own picture anyway if the character is vividly realised enough. If there’s a particular feature of my character’s appearance that is important, then I will work it in via dialogue with another character or by having something not go right with that feature and it being a problem for them, and thus make it a part of the scene.

      Reply
      • Keeran

        Thank you for replying. Yes, that does sound a sensible approach to character development. So often we think the appearance of a character is important, when it’s not to the reader. They fill in their own blanks.

        Reply
      • Morgan

        Im currently writing my first book, and i had the very same thought about character description! I wasnt sure if the “less is more” approach would be considered a good idea but you just helped me confirm that I should go with that gut feeling! Thank you so much for this article, putting this information to good use for sure!!

        Reply
    • Amelia Mikeleit

      Hey Keeran some ideas for the pov character describing themselves : work it into the story. Like my long bony fingers reached out towards my phone or I swept my curly, crimson hair from my face. I find it easier that way it avoids the laundry list and use of “I have blue eyes and blonde hair.” Try to make the reader get a good image of your character, you can talk about how your tall pov character stands the height of the busstop or always hits their head going through doors. You can talk about your overweight character and say that when she walks on wooden flooring she can hear the creaking, that way maybe it’s just in her mind or maybe she really is a heavy girl.

      Anyway just some ideas, you can use them if you’d like.

      Reply
  7. Jessica

    Hi Natasha!
    Thanks for the great tips! I’m afraid I’m guilty of including a flashback right in the opening page 🙁 Yikes! It’s really just there to explain one major incident that stands out in the main characters life that is extremely crucial to who and how she is. Are there any exceptions to this rule or should I find another way? I’ve rewritten the beginning three times now so what’s one more time, right? Lol

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Jessica – it’s hard to say without reading the book but I would tend to think the opening page mightn’t be the best place for a flashback. The reader wants to see your character as they are now and form an attachment to them in the here and now. Is it crucial that they know this on the first page? Can you delay it, hold off a bit, have the reader wondering why she is the way she is rather than answer that question for them on the first page? These are suggestions only and of course you know your book the best. Good luck with it!

      Reply
  8. Jane

    Thanks for the tips! The issue I have is that I was planning on alternating the POV each chapter between the two main characters. Do you think there is a way to head-hop elegantly?

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Jane, I’ve done the same thing in my second book, If I Should Lose You. The thing I did with this, and I think it’s a great idea, is to not alternate every chapter but around every 3 or 4 chapters. This gives the reader enough time to get to know each character and get into their stories before the switch is made, rather than chopping and changing too quickly and not being able to get a good handle on each character or story. I hope that makes sense and of course it’s a suggestion only. I have noticed that many books which do the 2 character POV also change after a few chapters, rather than every chapter i.e. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.

      Reply
      • Jane

        I will definitely consider switching after a few chapters instead of just one. Thanks so much for the advice!

        Reply
      • Cassie Pie

        Great advice. That’s ideal, 3 or 4 chapters and then switch. It’s so hard to hop every chapter, especially if you’re kind of intently reading and don’t notice when the next chapter changes narrator and you suddenly get very confused as to why they’re suddenly on the other side of the argument. Great article, definitely helping to revise my book! (I had started out with backstory! It’s truly my fatal flaw)

        Reply
  9. Christy warlow

    I’m really nervous about turning a couple of short stories into novels, I tend to be very descriptive and my husband says too descriptive what should I do?

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      I’m always reluctant to take on board too much feedback from family and friends. Try to get feedback from those who really know the genre you’re writing in and who understand the publishing industry. Perhaps a writers’ centre or critique group would be a better place to get feedback if you’re unsure. First though, I think just give it a go. Write a first draft and put it away and then pull it out a couple of months after and see what you think. It’s always best to write a draft first rather than not write it because you’re worried about how it might come out.

      Reply
  10. Cara

    I came across this article on Pinterest and I’m so glad I did! Definitely a nice check list to use when going through the final stages of writing a novel. Tip #1 really put it into perspective on how to introduce a character and make it comparable to real life. Will keep this in mind! 🙂

    Reply
  11. jiche

    I am so glad I stumbled across your pin and now I do not plan on missing your blogs. Thank you! I will now follow my heart and write…one step at a time.

    Reply
  12. Victoria MIzen

    Good advice, thanks Natasha. So hard to put into practice when trying to show our readers the place and the main characters. I’m not sure if I’m guilty.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Yes, it is hard, Victoria. Especially when we really want the reader to understand fully what’s happening in the story. Letting go and trusting that the reader will work it out if we guide them takes lost of practice! I’m still working on it.

      Reply
  13. Cecilia

    This was extremely helpful! I now need to go back to the beginning of my story and take out most of the backstory that was WAY too extensive!

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      I think most people find they have to do that when they go back and redraft. It’s only after you’ve finished a draft that you start to realise that much of the backstory is for you, the writer, to get to know the story and that the reader will be okay without too many signposts. Good luck with it!

      Reply
  14. Maddy

    Hi Natasha. I am very young and just starting my first novel. After reading this page, I was concerned with my beginning which started with a prologue. I did this because, similar to Harry Potter, my story has to work its way into the genre. I felt that the prologue would give the readers a better grasp on what my story would consist of. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Maddy, thanks for visiting. I would find it very hard to say definitively that a prologue is a good or a bad thing as I think they can work really well if used properly. If you’re using it to create narrative tension and to hook the reader into your story then that’s great. It’s only if you feel you’re using it to convey lots of backstory that I would be wary. The best thing to do would be to join your local writers’ centre and try to go along to some of their groups to get some feedback, or to take a writing course as both of these strategies will teach you so much about writing. I hope that helps.

      Reply
  15. Kaitlyn Chelak

    So I saw your list. That was very helpful. I was just going to jump right in. I did research by looking at the books that I have read and then I found your list. Although, I’m trying to write a fantasy Victorian pirate story. I am using my friends for characters since I let them create them. I have nine friends that have made characters. Would that be too many characters? Should I narrow them down? I almost gave up on this story. I have written so many stories that I eventually gave up on because I lost interest or I couldn’t begin it. I made a deal with my best friend that I would finish this one.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      It’s not too many characters. Just be sure to introduce them slowly and to make sure that they all speak distinctly. Sometimes characters tend to speak the same and this becomes dull for the reader. You could consider collapsing some characters into one another if you don’t feel you can make them different enough. Be sure you know exactly what part each character plays in the story and why they need to be there.

      Reply
  16. Jade

    This is such a great list! A question though; how do you know if you’re front loading too much or starting too early? I live in a place where there really isn’t a writer’s group to be found because of how small it is.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Thanks Jade! What I would do is make a copy of my first three chapters and in one copy, I’d keep all the backstory. In the second copy, I’d take most of it out. Then I’d put them away for a week or so, then pull them out and read both, thinking all the time: is there still enough information in here for the reader to work out what is going on? What is the bare minimum that they need to know? I’d compare the 2 versions and see which works best, or whether a hybrid of the two is the way to go.

      Reply
      • Jade

        Thanks so much! I made a short novel, more a novella, and wasn’t sure what to do about that. Thank you for all the time you put into helping all of the newbies move into the writing community!

        Reply
  17. Sarah

    Oh goodness. I’m glad I caught this. I’m a really amateur writer (besides fanfics I used to write). I’ve recently started writing a story based off some prompts between me and a friend. And I’ve had other friends tell me based on the ideas of these prompts, that I should write them officially – it was definitely some encouragement. I’m barely into chapter three and I realize that I’m guilty for probably all 10 of these. I have a prologue, which I open with a dream (since the dream, which is based on a flashback, opens up the small romance portion in this supernatural thriller), I use a lot of details and backstory (I at least realized that it made the flow of the story weird but don’t know how to fix that), and I do the grocery list descriptions.

    It looks like I’ll be needing to rewrite what I’ve got, I figured I would.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Thanks for your comment, Sarah. I wouldn’t worry too much about doing all of these things in a first draft – I’m sure I do many of them myself in a first draft. It’s more something to think about in the edit. With the first draft, the key thing is to get to the end and then you can go back and fix all of these things. I hope that helps!

      Reply
  18. beth

    What do you do when you have multiple beginnings? I had three and decided to use all of them. Two one book and the third in another. This has given me the much debated prologue, even though the view is omnipotent it seems as the story is being told by one of the characters.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Sorry, I’m not exactly sure what you mean by having multiple beginnings. Do you mean that you have written a few different draft beginnings and aren’t sure which one works best? If so, then I would go over each beginning and see which one has the inciting incident, which one quickly establishes the character’s normal way of life and which one has a hook in it. Those are the key things you need in a beginning – you could even test them out on beta readers and see which one the readers respond to. I hope that helps.

      Reply
  19. Alicia Keigh

    Oh My! I’m so grateful for this Ms. Natasha. It has always been a dream for me to write a story successfully. And I was getting started to it just recently and yeah I’m having quite a hard time on what to do and how. This is really very helpful. It’s really a good thing to learn. Thank you very much. I guess I have to review my story. 🙂

    Reply
  20. Kat

    To be honest, a lot of these made sense but I like prologues as long as they aren’t boring. I’ve started three books, all three have prologues, and I can’t imagine them without it. I know it’s a matter of preference with editors and publishers but I’m just sharing my opinion.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      My latest book has a prologue too, so I don’t think it’s either right or wrong to have one. If it works for the book and it’s not a big info dump, then I say go for it!

      Reply
  21. Ron M.

    Wow my 2 favorite writers break those rules left and right and are very successful.
    Bernard Cornwell Is probably the greatest historical fiction writer in the world and his many books sell at premium prices, even on Kindle. Also Mary Stewart and her famous ‘Merlin Trilogy’ seems to me to be way out of line with these guidelines starting with the prologue that is amazing.

    Reply
  22. Bec

    This was so helpful! I found your website on Pinterest and love your helpful tips. I would appreciate if you could answer a question of mine. When creating a completely new fantasy world, I feel that my (eventual) readers should know a little about the world they’re entering. Thus I put a prologue. Was I right in doing that?

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      It’s so hard for me to say if it’s the right or wrong thing to do. I think the key is to be sure your prologue is adding something to the narrative, that it is posing questions the reader wants answered, that it is dong the job of starting the narrative tension in the novel and not just describing the world. It might be better to drip in info about the world on an a need to know basis. But if you’re confident that you’re prologue is doing both, then that’s great, stick with it.

      Reply
  23. Jenn

    I’m guilty of “shopping lists” in my writing, lol. I’ve got a lot of editing to do once NaNo is over.

    Reply
  24. Jesse

    Hello, new to your blog, found you through pinterest. I have been crafting a fantasy story for more than 8 years. Just recently I sat down to finally start writing it from scratch… This was really helpful ad I am only 1 page in, writing the beginning.

    I started to think about Harry Potter when you mentioned the mirror, I think on book 3 or 4 the very first description is Harry waking up and looking into a mirror, and she explaines in detail how he looks like. 🙂

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Thanks for stopping by. Glad it was helpful. And yes, there are always successful examples of rule breakers, which is great. As a writer once said, it’s only by knowing the rules that you can begin to experiment with breaking them. Good luck with it.

      Reply
  25. Jodi Gibson

    Again, great tips. I’m not sure where I stand on prologues either. My current draft has a prologue, but I think it needs to be there. I think if it adds to the story and initial connection of the character then it is useful. Another thing I’ve learned along the way is to start the story in the right spot. Both my current WIPs initially began in the wrong part of the story. When I changed them the story flowed more easily, both for me the writer and (hopefully) for the reader.

    Reply
  26. John Martin

    Thanks for this good advice, Natasha. I especially like No. 5. That’s because I’ve been telling my wife for years not to bother giving me shopping lists. They only spoil the flow of my supermarket experience.

    Reply
  27. Cheryl

    Thank you Natasha for your wonderful advice. I’m so glad I found a link on Pintrest.
    I have a question concerning #8
    My book starts out with my main character in a scene which is actually a scene that ends the book. I have her basically going back to where it all began in chapter two.
    Is this considered a flashback or am I ok to start this way?
    Would so appreciate any advice you could give me.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      That sounds more like a prologue and is quite a common way to start a book, where we see the ending first and the rest of the book is about how things got to that point. So it’s not a flashback but is definitely a well established way to begin a book. I hope that helps!

      Reply
      • Cheryl

        Thank you for your reply. Yes it does help.
        I am so glad I found your site it is such a treasure trove of helpful information.
        Thank you

        Reply
  28. Amy Ruth

    Wow! Thank you so much for a fantastic article! I am in the beginning stages of writing a sequel for a favorite book of mine. I was worried that I needed more backstory, but reading this I see that the little bit that I do have is probably just right. I have done quite a bit of research and discovered that I won’t be able to publish my book until 2047 when the original copyright expires, but that’s okay! I’m just writing for me and my family, and because I have come to love the characters! Have you ever found that one of your characters reacts to the situation in a way that you didn’t expect? This has happened to me a couple of times, and my sister thinks that’s utterly ridiculous!

    Reply
  29. Josie

    What is a good first thing to do in a book then? Because most of these things are what I first think of when starting a story…

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Dive straight into the action Jodie. What are your characters doing, right now in the present? Give them something interesting to do, and write about that.

      Reply
  30. V Blake

    Great list. My biggest pet peeve when reading is the description lists. I don’t need to know every detail of a characters appearance or their home decor, especially when it has nothing to do with the plot.

    Reply
  31. Amber Wester

    I think I’m good. I haven’t really written a book before so these tips are awesome help for me.

    Reply

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