Finding The Beginning

By John Gilstrap

It’s rare that the Chapter One I start with when writing a new book lives on as Chapter One in the final version. Usually, it’s a structural thing. I’ll realize after I’m a couple of dozen (or a couple of hundred) pages that I set the story up the wrong way. Sometimes, this leads me to move existing chapters around, and sometimes it leads me to write whole new sections. It’s all part of the process.

The lure of the prologue.

We all know that in the suspense genres, readers expect something big, plot-wise, in the opening pages of a book, yet as authors we have twenty pages of setup and backstory in our heads that we want to reveal so that the Big Moment will make more sense when it arrives.

“I know!” the writer says to himself. “I’ll start with a really exciting moment from Act 2 that will pique the readers’ interest, and I’ll call it a prologue. After that, they’ll endure those twenty boring pages because they know something exciting is coming.”

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? It’s the same silliness that explains why prologues are largely reviled and spell real danger coming from a rookie writer.

Action wins the day every time.

Here’s the opening (for now) of my current Jonathan Grave WIP (with apologies up front for the formatting glitch that I don’t know how to fix:

            JoeDog growled.

Jonathan Grave snapped awake and snatched his cocked and locked Colt 1911 .45 from the edge of his nightstand. As his right thumb touched the safety, his left thumb depressed the button for the muzzle light, launching an 800-lumen disk that revealed the entirety of his bedroom. If there’d been an intruder, the bad guy would be dead now.

But the room was empty, save for Jonathan and the ever-flatulent 65-pound Labrador retriever that shared his bed tonight.

I write every series book with the assumption that it is the first time a reader has encountered Jonathan’s world. At this stage, the action of the scene is everything. Readers don’t need any of the backstory. They know that there’s a guy who’s cautious enough to sleep with a loaded pistol on the nightstand, likable enough to share his bed with a big dog, and that the dog senses danger. If the first paragraphs drive readers to read the succeeding paragraphs, they have done their job.

Lessons from Harry Potter.

An exercise I love to lead when I do seminars is to ask students to tell me when Harry Potter’s story begins. (Spoilers ahead for the 5 people on the planet who’ve neither read the books nor watched the movies.) Hands shoot up and invariably, someone says the story begins when Baby Harry is delivered by Hagrid to the doorstep of the Dursley home.


Okay, then it begins when Dumbledore sucks the light out the street lamps with his magical Zippo.


Those events do, indeed, mark the beginning of the book and movie, but not the beginning of the story. The story begins 10 years before Harry was born, when James and Lilly Potter–Harry’s parents–were mean to a teenage Severus Snape. The backstory that emerges from those bygone years ultimately have a massive impact on the overall plot, but Rowling had the good sense not to start with that backstory.

In Medias Res

A quick peek into Encyclopedia Britannica, in medias res translates from Latin as “in the midst of things.” It’s a phrase used by every writing instructor as the place to begin a story for maximum impact on the reader. It’s worth considering. If you hook the reader at the beginning, and you keep the journey interesting, readers will follow to wherever you want to take them.

What say you, TKZ family? Does the proper beginning elude you at times? How do you find it?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

8 thoughts on “Finding The Beginning

  1. This happened to me with my library cozy mystery. I had opened in the wrong place. Ironically, in my case, I’d started a little too late, opening with a noise disturbance in the library that my hero had to deal with. One of my beta readers, a former library colleague and big reader of cozies, really wanted me to ground the reader in my heroine’s world before seeing her confronted by that challenge. I ran his suggestion by a couple of my other betas, and they agreed.

    This is definitely a genre difference, since the urban fantasy I wrote, as well as thrillers I’ve read, tend to open with action. Cozy mystery, on the other hand, while it can have action very close to the opening, needs to establish the world that’s about to be up-ended, and also give us a sense of who our heroine is.

    My solution was to show her arriving on to work, keyed up about doing well on her first day as temporary supervisor, meeting a few other staffers and seeing the cozyness of the library in that new first scene, cozyness which is about to be thorougly disrupted. The original opening is now the second scene, where she has to deal with “Everyone Wants to Rule the World” being played at full volume in the library, followed by a second disturbance which leads directly into the mystery.

  2. I can usually pick the right first scene, I get bored with backstory, but choosing the right moment is tricky.

  3. I remind myself the first chapters are for ME, not the reader, and cut them. I measure my growth as a writer by having to cut fewer chapters/pages with each book.

  4. Newer writers don’t realize that the prologue or the first scenes/chapters are usually written for themselves, not the reader. They are figuring out things in their heads and putting it on paper. This is also a common problem in scene setups.

    I disagree about the beginning of Harry Potter. Harry’s parents’ deaths are backstory. The story doesn’t truly begin until boy, not baby, Harry shows up on page. The inciting incident is Hagrid announcing, “You’re a wizard, Harry.”

  5. I like the concept of In Medias Res. As a reader, I enjoy trying to figure out what’s going on rather than having the author tell me about it. As an author, I try to find a moment that will pique the readers’ interest without confusing them too much.

  6. It was so encouraging to hear that your original first chapters rarely stay in the final version. I thought it was just me.
    Thanks for the article.

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