In answer to the question prominently placed above, most writers will give a resounding “YES”… but half of them are likely to be wrong (my personal statistic based on editing others’ work).
Over the years I’ve read a number of articles and blog posts on “how to start your book in the right place” – honestly, I can’t being to give any concrete suggestions until I’ve read your work.
It’s all about the story.
I’ll know if the beginning doesn’t work as well as it might once I’ve learned about the characters, their problem(s) and its resolution.
But here’s what I can say about making a pre-determination for yourself:
A) If you have a prologue, ask yourself if the information contained therein comes out anyway in the natural course of the story. If not, ask yourself if all of the information is absolutely necessary to understanding the story. Then challenge yourself to selectively weave in hints and clues about what is said during that prologue throughout the rest of the story (and use the whole story… don’t try to jamb everything up front in the first few chapters – the suspense will be good for your book and your reader). If this absolutely cannot happen, then keep your prologue and get a 2nd opinion from either an editor or book review expert (someone who knows books so well they can intuitively spot this stuff in their sleep). Then get a 3rd and 4th opinion.
B) If there’s more exposition (describing of what’s going on) than dialogue in your first chapter, analyze why. Are you trying to “tell” your reader a bunch of stuff or are you revealing action, intent and simple setting? As long as “stuff” is happening, then the absence of dialogue is no big deal but if you’re doing a lot of “explaining” then cut it out – all of it – and challenge yourself to spread out the knowledge over the next 5-7 chapters.
C) If you’re not starting with your protagonist’s or antagonist’s introduction and the main crux of the problem in chapter one (or the first page of your short story) then you’re aiming the telescope in the wrong direction. By focusing on an aspect of your character’s background that has “made her who she is” is not the same as diving right into the focus of the story.
I critiqued a short story recently that opened with a young girl being spirited away in the middle of the night by an aunt and uncle, who weren’t really an aunt and uncle, because of a ‘bad’ home situation… sounds pretty gripping doesn’t it? The problem was, this story wasn’t about the girl’s “troubled home life” at all. It was about the ghost of a person who’s room she used to stay in whenever incidents like these happened in her life – it was about her connection with this older boy she’d never actually met, not the situation with her parents. So I suggested to the author to cut the first 1/2 page and start the story when the girl first walks into the older boy’s room. It’s not that the stuff cut wasn’t important to understanding her situation, it was just placed in the wrong spot. By having it first, I kept looking for meaning to flow back to the parental situation which conflicted with the true thrust of the story.
It’s not uncommon to hear an author speak of having revised their first chapter 10 or more times during the drafting process. When I was first learning the craft I didn’t understand this – my book started where I need it to start… However, after 10 years of studying writing (and reading a lot) I realized that my 1st chapter did need work. I debated constantly with myself as to whether I only needed to modify the original chapter 1 or jump ahead to chapter 2 and weave in a touch of that scene which I cut. I gave the book to different beta readers with only one or the other beginning and leaned that there was too much confusion by jumping right to chapter 2, so that meant modifying chapter 1 to better suit the situation and cutting more than 1/2 of what I’d written originally.
Good luck and Happy Editing!
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