Writing Tip #10: Don't Start a Story This Way!

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There are many good approaches to writing. There are also some, shall we say, not so good approaches. In this tips post, I thought we would have some fun with the not so good - specifically with regard to story openers.

But first, a special note.

Note from The Ink Well mods on “quality writing”

Do you ever wonder, "Is my writing good?"

I just want to say that while quality in writing is very subjective, and there is likely no concrete definition of what constitutes "good" writing, the fact is that seasoned writers and editors (like the members of The Ink Well admin/mod team) know at a glance whether a story or poem has been written with care.

The signs of quality writing appear in the delicious opening, the voice of the piece, the turn of phrase, the richness of detail, and the mood evoked, among other things.

  • If it is a work of fiction, do we feel compelled to read further after the first line? Do we understand the characters and their motivations? Is there a central conflict to resolve by the story’s end?
  • If it is a poetry work, does the piece show originality? Does it capture some intriguing idea or universal emotion? Are the words carefully chosen to heighten our senses and make us feel alive?

This is not to say that all writers must be experts!

Emerging writers can learn and grow here. The tips and support we provide in The Ink Well are about helping you to up your game, so you are always improving. We are a very small team, but we read as many of The Ink Well posts as possible in an attempt to find and reward great content. Currently, we are in discussion about how to ensure that well-crafted creative works, written with care and intent, will receive the greatest rewards.

Changes will come about soon to help make it clear what we look for in “quality writing,” and to help our members understand why some pieces will receive the best rewards and others will not. We want you to be motivated to produce your best work and showcase it here.

Tip: If you write and post a piece in a few minutes without taking time to review your own writing and look for errors to fix and ways to make your writing better, you simply won't see rewards like those who have taken the time to produce high quality poetry or prose. In fact, if you just throw words on the page, no matter how dreary, uninspired and poorly done, The Ink Well may not be the place for you.

Okay, on to the tip of the week!

Avoid these kinds of story openers

Some of my favorite writing tips from various guides I've read and workshops and classes I've participated in over the years are about how not to open a story. They can be very enlightening and even amusing.

I hope you enjoy the lists and links below. I’m pulling from a variety of resources to give you additional places to turn to for guidance and ideas.

  1. Don’t open with a dream, says Writer's Digest. “Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character's merely dreaming it all.” Why? The main reason is that it can very easily make the reader feel tricked. You can make all kinds of things happen in the subconscious realm, and then reveal that it was "just a dream," but to what end? What have we readers learned from this? (That the author can’t be trusted.) How has the character developed? (Not at all; it wasn’t even the character’s reality.) Dreams can certainly have a place in fiction. Just don’t start or end a story with one, or make the entire story a dream.
  2. Also don’t open with your main character waking up to an alarm clock, suggests the same Writer’s Digest article. “This is always a groaner for the agent or editor,” the article shares. Why? Because it is no more interesting than showing your character eating a bowl of cereal, tying shoes, putting on a jacket, and walking out the door. Most of us do all of these things, and unless the prose is particularly sublime, we don’t need a play-by-play of them.
  3. Do not start a start with the weather, says Ja Konrath, in his his article, How Not to Start a Story." The reasons are similar to the alarm clock. Perhaps if it’s a tornado, that would be of interest. But a story opening with rain, thunder or sunshine is just not exciting. Konrath agrees with Writer’s Digest that a character waking up is a big snore. Pardon the pun.
  4. Do not start a story with a cliché, writes Laura Lee M in her article, 10 Ways Not to Open a Story. If it sounds like it has been said before, that means it is best to avoid it. “It was a dark and stormy night,” always comes to mind (circling back to starting with the weather), as does “Once upon a time, in a land far far away….” It should come as no surprise that Laura Lee agrees with the aforementioned people that weather and waking up are big no-nos for story openers.
  5. Another great tip of Laura Lee’s is to not start a story with a long explanation of the background events leading up to the actual story. We really won’t read that. Jump right into the story itself. See Writing Tip #4: Avoiding the Dreaded Info Dump for more on this topic.
  6. Don’t begin a story with too much action and not enough character, writes Chella in her article, 7 Ways to Kill Your Story. Why? Well, we need to know who is experiencing these fascinating events in order to get involved in the story. It’s the character we care about, not the fact that some random person is running through a bog being chased by a goliath with fangs and body odor. The goliath could be very interesting, but we need to see through the eyes of a character to really feel the tension and wonder what that person will do to get out of the jam.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these tips! Drop a note to share your thoughts, ideas, or writing hurdles.

Happy writing!

@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.

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If you're looking to up your fiction game and reach that next level, check out my past writing tips linked below.

Writing Tip #1: Writing from a Prompt

Writing Tip #2: Adding Conflict

Writing Tip #3: Writing What You Know

Writing Tip #4: Avoiding the Dreaded Info Dump

Writing Tip #5: Is ‘Show Don’t Tell’ a Writing Rule?

Writing Tip #6: How Fiction Writing Is Like Weaving

Writing Tip #7: Put It On the Page

Writing Tip #8: What Is a Story Arc?

Writing Tip #9: Should You Plot Your Story?

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