Beginnings are important. I know I’ve talked about this before but recently it’s been something that has come up repeatedly so I figured I might do a post completely related to beginnings and how to go about them.
My roommate has decided to try doing NaNo. Somewhat. Inspired by my (near constant) chatter about it she’s decided that she’s going to write a story that’s been with her for the past few months. She’s working on it now and doesn’t hold any illusions about doing the 50000 words in a month (her schedule just doesn’t allow for that) but since NaNo is all about stopping procrastinating writing your novel and just doing it, I’m counting it as a NaNo attempt and I couldn’t be prouder of her. She’s writing a fantasy story and after maybe five pages of writing has hit a snag: she hasn’t begun her story. So, Em, this is for you.
In my review of Lucky I talked about the conundrum of beginnings. Unless you start at literally the dawn of time (I’m looking at you, Edward Rutherford) there’s always a before. Does your protagonist’s story begin when they set off on their quest? When they’re a child growing up? What about when they were born? Or when their parents met? What happened in order for this quest to be necessary?
As a writer, you should probably know the answers to some of these questions. Or, at least, you should know the answers of all of the questions that relate to your story. Because that’s what it comes down to— the beginning should relate to the story.
A general rule with beginnings is that you should start as close to the action as possible. Is your protagonist’s life going to be turned upside down by a smouldering look from the town’s resident monster? Excellent! I want to see that in the first chapter. Are they going to discover some ancient power that’s been passed down to them which manifests itself on their 13th birthday? I’m going to be expecting the story to start the day of if not the Moment of said manifestation.
People are lazy readers. If we’re spending our time and effort on a story we want to know what we’re in for straight up. We don’t want to read 100 pages about how normal your characters lives were before The Conflict. We have normal lives. We know what that’s like. Give us vampires! (Disclaimer: If you don’t particularly want to give us vampires that’s cool too. I just saw a huge pile of Twilight novels on the discount table at a second hand store and after having a vindictive snicker I’ve now got Twilight on the brain)
There are a few things every beginning should do.
Introduce your characters up front. Stories are about characters. They’re the things people identify with and they’re what makes a story memorable. Let us know who we’re going to be following on this journey through your novel. We don’t have to know everything about them but we do have to know that they’re going to be our guides.
Set the tone. If your novel is going to be full of slapstick humour I’m not really expecting there to be a murder on the first page… Unless that’s your thing, in which case you’re either darkly genius or an axe-murdering clown (no, there is no middle ground.) If you’re planning for this to be introspective and dark start with it. Dark and stormy night that shit up. Alternatively, if you’re going for a lighter feel maybe start with a joke. Or an overarching thesis for your novel.
Personally, when I’m really stuck I tend to start with dialogue. This is because, for me, dialogue is how I express my characters. What they say and how they say it is generally how my readers get to know who these people are. So dialogue is my introduction to them.Catch your audience. I’ve mentioned before that readers are lazy and you would not believe how true that is (I just came out of a lecture that argued that if we’re writing screenplays not to write more than 4 lines of description at a time. Apparently producers freak out when they realise they might have to concentrate for longer than the 30 seconds it takes to read a block of text that big). I’m a generous reader. I give books 100 pages and I give fanfic 3 chapters. I can afford to do that because 1. I’m a fast reader and 2. I’m a university student so it’s either read or go back to boring assignment number 5. And even after that initial test I’ll probably still keep reading unless I find something objectionable. Even then, I’ll probably still keep going if I figure I’ve committed too much time to the book to give up now (This leads to bad experiences. Don’t do it). But I’m an exception. I know people who give a book ten pages or, sometimes, only one. Something has to happen and FAST. The main story has to start or, at least, we have to get an idea of what the main story is going to be and who we’re following.
Some things that your beginning doesn’t have to have:
Full explanations. This is where a lot of fantasy novelists have trouble. It comes from the complex world-building process most go through before they even begin thinking of their story. We don’t have to know the complex political history of your world. We don’t need to know exactly how the magic works or why there’s a giant monster terrorising the town. Hell, we don’t even have to know why your characters know each other and how. This is the beginning. We want to know who they are and what the situation is. You can show us (SHOW, not tell) all of that stuff later. Don’t underestimate your readers. As long as you write in a clear, logical way they’ll follow. We work with incomplete information all the time in real life. We can cope with your story not info-dumping (technical term) in the first 3 pages.Mind-bending awesomeness. Though you have to catch your reader, remember to pace yourself. There’s nothing worse than blowing your load early (Sorry, the opportunity was there and crude humour always wins over classiness). This is only the beginning of the story. It needs to invite your readers in while still allowing you room to move. If you begin your story with your protagonists fighting a two-storey tall fire-breathing dragon then you’re going to have trouble giving your story a satisfying climax (I’ll stop, I’ll stop). If you recall the post I did about plots (it seems to be the day for linking back to my own posts), you’ll remember that, ideally, a plot looks like a drunk triangle. Everything is connected and it all leads up towards the climax where your conflict is resolved before sliding down into your ending. The problem with starting with the proverbial fire-breathing dragon is that you’ve got nowhere to go but down. And that’s probably worse for your story than giving it a weak beginning.
Ultimately, it comes down to not being afraid of your story. The reason Em had such trouble with beginning her story was because she had held on to the story for a while and because she hasn’t written anything creative since high school (doing an engineering degree isn’t the most conducive to the writerly ways) so she wanted to do the story and her characters justice. So she wrote around the story. She wrote five pages of it before she realised what she was doing. Then, after thinking about it, she sat down and (with the aid of the magical WriteOrDie) wrote 800 words actually about her characters.
Whether or not it remains as the beginning of her story doesn’t matter. It’s a start and that’s something to be proud of. When she has her story complete she may reconsider and change where her story begins. She may add things before or (more likely) she may cut the beginning to be even closer to the start of the main action. But that’s all editing and that can be done later.
- Story beginnings (wordyliving.wordpress.com)
- Opening Scenes in Fiction (bardicblogger.wordpress.com)