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Writing

8 Pitfalls to Avoid When Starting a Story

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 13, 2020 • 3 min read

Getting started on the first chapter of a creative writing project can be a daunting task, even for a celebrated bestselling author. Once you’ve gone through the arduous task of choosing story ideas and mapping out plot points, it’s time to start your actual story. Though there is no magic formula for how to open a bestselling novel, there are a fair number of overused openings that good writers should make sure to avoid.

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8 Pitfalls to Avoid When Starting a Story

In fiction, there are no hard and fast rules for constructing a storyline—but there are some generally accepted structural techniques that have withstood the test of time. Similarly, though there is no single right way to start your novel, there are some openings that you would be best served to avoid. Steer clear of these eight overused story openings:

  1. Using too much exposition: New writers often feel like they have to frontload their story with a ton of expository information in order to orient their readers and start their story. The fact is, opening with too much exposition at the expense of simple character description and character development can confuse readers. A great story generally has a powerful standalone opening that hooks the reader, followed by gradual exposition.
  2. Switching POV: First-time writers may make the mistake of incorrectly switching points of view. If most of your story is told in third-person POV, avoid writing your opening from the first-person perspective of your main character. The first pages of your story are a time to set the tone for your readers.
  3. Opening with a dream sequence: Some writers may feel tempted to start the first chapter of a novel with an exciting scene that is interrupted by an alarm clock and a disembodied voice shouting “wake up”? A dream sequence is a classic example of a clichéd opening that should be avoided at all costs. Dream sequences do very little to set up the actual stakes of your novel, and there is little pay off with the twist that most readers will see coming.
  4. Relying on clichéd opening lines: Do your best to avoid overused opening lines. The first line of a short story or novel is essentially making the first impression on your reader. Instead of writing, “It was a dark and stormy night,” opt for an opening sentence that sets a scene-specific tone for your story.
  5. Starting with backstory: It’s best to avoid flashbacks or backstory in the opening of your story. A good story will contain plenty of backstory dispersed over the course of the entire narrative. A good rule of thumb for novel writing is to choose a first sentence that hooks your reader and propels your story forward. Backstory is not ideal for openings because it roots your story in a timeframe that precedes the majority of your action and slows your storytelling down.
  6. Doing too much worldbuilding: Great books contain plenty of vivid worldbuilding, but it’s best to save that for after the first paragraph or two. When you start writing the opening of your book, try to find an active opening that grabs your readers’ attention.
  7. Using inappropriate genre tropes: Using tropes from genres that differ from your story’s main genre can confuse your reader. If you are writing a sci-fi thriller, the reader should have some indication of this right away. Don’t open with a sappy romantic scene (even if these elements appear in your book) because it disorients your reader and sets them up for a different kind of story. Your opening should grab your reader’s attention and set the mood and tone for the rest of the story.
  8. Opening with too much dialogue: Many good stories open with a line of dialogue, but it’s best to avoid too much more than that. Your opening lines should orient your readers and ground them in your story. They aren’t yet acquainted with your characters, and opening with too much dialogue can be confusing.

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