A joke consists of two parts: the set up and the punchline.
However, one part is all flash and laughs and attention grabbing, and the other does the more mundane, ordinary stuff. So, if you want to grab the audience by the throat straight away, show them you mean business, you should start with the punchline, right?
Nonsensical as that is, it’s pretty much the standard advice most aspiring writers get. And it’s just as wrong in fiction as it is in joke-telling.
You need both the set-up and the punchline. You need both. And you need them in the right order, otherwise they can’t do their prospective jobs.
Putting the showy stuff up front may seem like a good way to be eye-catching, but how does that serve your story?
The whole idea of putting the hook, the inciting incident, the character in media res, as soon as possible—within the first chapter, the first ten pages, the opening line—makes no narrative sense at all.
When you read a book, you don’t choose it blindfolded and start reading the first page with no prior knowledge. And you don’t stop reading the moment you get to the end of the first page and nothing monumental’s happened. You know the genre, you’ve seen the cover, read the blurb, and you know the hook.
In most cases whatever the book is about is in the blurb. Whether your inciting incident is on page one or chapter six, the reader will have a pretty good idea of the sort of thing it is.
If a story is about a guy who travels back in time to 1842 and falls in love with a young Queen Victoria, do you really think the reader won’t know that going in? So why the big push to hurry, hurry, hurry?
Once someone reads a story they no longer view it like a new reader. It’s like hearing a joke and then not finding the joke funny anymore (because you’ve already heard it), so you then start suggesting changes that forget the whole point is to be funny. Parts of a story (or a joke) are interdependent. It’s not just about how well they work in isolation, it’s also about how they affect the overall experience. And that's a hard thing for most people to gauge, especially if they haven't read the whole book.
The reason things have to be in a certain order is because it changes the impact of information. And once you get that full impact, you don’t get it again. However, that doesn’t mean you can start changing things round willy-nilly, just because it no longer makes a difference to your personal experience of them.Getting to know characters, seeing them in normal life, establishing the world they're in, these things all do more than simply convey information. They create fictional reality that envelops the reader. Hopefully.
That’s not to say all set-up is a good set-up. There’s always room for improvement. But if people are telling you the first two chapters of your story are boring or unnecessary, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should start from chapter three. It is more likely to mean you should rewrite the first two chapters and make them better.
By the way, I'm not saying starting later in a story is necessarily a bad thing, it depends on the specific story, but the idea that later is automatically better is certainly not true.
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