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Suppose the rules for starting stories aren't true?

February 17, 2022
Posted by:
Ron Seybold

While we structure our stories, we follow advice. Some advice is from agents, some of whom are not ready to let go of old rules. These can be rules like “Never start a book with a prologue.” Or the advice to make a big problem appear on the first page, or even making sure the tension never lets up.

Those can be practices that work, but they’re not inviolate rules. Those aren’t even rules. They are preferences, and plenty of fine fiction succeeds while it ignores that advice. Barbara Lynn Probst wrote about this for the fiction website Writer Unboxed this month. She said she writes “from the perspective of a reader, not a writer—because I’ve started wondering if what we’re told we need to do, as writers, matches up with our experience as readers. Specifically, that all-important “hook” in the first couple of pages.”

Probst, a novelist herself, looked at writing from debut writers and household names, the opening pages written by Joyce Maynard, Jodi Picoult, Alka Joshi, and Charlotte McConaghy. Prologues, time-jumps, immediate and obvious stakes, knowing the story question: all of these come and go, but the successful author needn’t believe there are rules about needing them all inside the first five pages. If you write well enough, such advice from too-busy agents is optional.

“I’m just raising a question about whether (maybe) we’re working backward,” Probst says, “and, in consequence, treating readers like children who need instant gratification or else they’ll go and play with someone else.”

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