Where shall we begin?

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?

Perhaps it started when a bunch of drunk guys decided to turn the ancient prophecy into a catchy-but-cryptic rhyme?

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)

Pity Me

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.

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About Meg Laverick

I can never be found without a cup of tea in my hand or a notebook in my bag. In between university and generally being awesome I read, write and nerd (that's a verb, right?). I also like analysing things that are probably best left alone.
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14 Responses to Where shall we begin?

  1. phoenixandtiger says:

    I loved this. How’s Sarum coming along, BTW?
    Beginnings should always relate…okay, guilty of not doing that. It’s just so hard to figure out where to start! Gah! And infodumping is easy….it’s so easy to do and fall in the trap of….
    And I loved the links to other blogs. Super-mega-tastically awesome is many many many ways.

    Sorry, the opportunity was there and crude humour always wins over classiness

    I love your sense of humour. I cracked up when I read that.

    Is it bad I thought that it was like an orgy when humans were being used as bricks in a skit? One of my friends knew exactly what I was thinking and when she looked at me and said ‘shut up’ I completely lost it.

    • Meg Laverick says:

      Sarum is… coming along. It’s written in a very weird way, isn’t it? It was like he couldn’t decide if he wanted to do a historical novel or a straight history so it kind of feels like he’s just taken chunks of texts from both styles and put them side by side in the hopes that it’ll turn into a coherent whole. Sarum’s his first one, right? Does the transition between narrative and history lesson get any smoother in his later books?

      I tend to go to the extremes when it comes to infodumping. I either give absolutely no information at all and just kind of expect people to catch up or I’ll say things five times in five different ways just to make sure that everyone got it.

      I only just figured out how to do the related article links a few weeks ago XD It’s cool, right?

      I’m glad someone likes my sense of humour. Mostly I get eyerolls from my friends. And wait– people as Bricks?? How was that not extremely awkward for absolutely everyone involved?

      • phoenixandtiger says:

        I like to think it does – I just read Sarum and Russka, and I’m thinking of starting them after NaNo. The history textbook/historical fiction thingie gets better in Russka. It’s more…how should I say it. More narrative in Russka than historical textbook, but the narrative gets kinda boring seeing as there’s maybe 2-300 pages in every single chapter. Yeah, Sarum’s his first one. There’s one called London that’s also about England/UK/whatever you call it. It’s based around London, though.

        The people aren’t really stacked on top of each other. Think the base of the pyramid in cheerleading, and pile tons and tons of pillows on top. With a My Little Pony doll at the tip.

        • Meg Laverick says:

          He’s got a few. There’s one called New York and another called Dublin. They were sitting on the shelf next to Sarum. They were a bit thinner.

          …The more you talk about this wall/pyramid thing the more confused I get.

          • phoenixandtiger says:

            ‘They were a bit thinner’.
            Heh, nice to know that I’m not the only one who looks at the length of books. But I’m pretty sure I gravitate towards the fatter doorstoppers….literal doorstoppers.

            Hmm. The pyramid. It didn’t really make much sense to me when we figured out the logistics, but it was basically have some ppl kneel together in a somewhat straight line, and just stack pillows on top like they were bricks. The My Little Pony thing was like a shoutout to someone’s friend or something. It was funny. I think once it’s done the guy who did all the editing’s going to put it on youtube.

  2. Lainy says:

    Oooh, write or die looks harsh. I like it.

    I think i’ve nailed the opening, but i’m going to have trouble moving the story along. Maybe write or die would be the best for that? Be forced to do something and just do it. But i’ll leave that until November. My last exam is on the 7th November so hey… actually have most of the month. Well should be studying.

    So next up is the middle (or is that more the plot?) and then how to make a satisfying ending? Write me a story? XD mind you i still have your other stories to continue reading.

    Went and relived the childhood tonight and watched the Lion King in 3D. I have a soft spot for scar. He’s just so awesome in an evil and twisted way. I have a soft spot for evil and twisted characters.

    • Meg Laverick says:

      Write or Die is MAGICAL. I have the desktop version on my computer now and it is responsible for the majority of my writing. I’m looking forward to NaNo so I can use it to have word wars with people (Basically, you have a race to see who can write the most in a set amount of time)

      My last exam is the 12th But I’ll probably be using writing my NaNo as my reward for doing study so we’ll see.

      I always find when I’m having trouble getting the plot moving the best solution is to have something HAPPEN. Like your main character gets a phonecall and suddenly the most disaterous thing ever has happened!! Or there’s a fight or… something. Otherwise you tend to get bogged down in boring stuff.

      Would I be able to beg you for a review for my newest story? No one’s review it yet and it makes me sad 😦

      Scar is the most gleefully fabulous villain ever. I can’t decide if I want to go see it. One one hand- The Lion King. On the other it’s in 3D *Cue shuddering* Would you recommend it?

      • Lainy says:

        It’s the Lion King. It sort of overrules the 3D XD

        Actually i didn’t find it too bad in 3D. Probably because i was only going to see what it was like actually in 3D otherwise i would have waited for them to release the remastered edition on dvd next week. I was in the right mindset. It was funny, there were some kids in the theatre (most of it was teenagers, hah!) and when Mufasa died one kid said ‘what happened to him?’ and another yelled out ‘he’s dead!’ the whole cinema was in silence at this point and then there was just laughter.

        Lol, i would be happy to, i haven’t decided whether i wanted to finish my assignment or bum around.

        • Meg Laverick says:

          …It seems kind of blasphemous to laugh at Mufasa’s death. XD That said, when I was a kid it didn’t really affect me. Now, however, I cry Every. Single. Time.

          Thanks so much for your (two!) reviews lovely (I couldn’t work out where to reply so I figured here would do). I did use free indirect discourse (Nicely spotted). The stuff about the routine and ‘always the same jokes’ etc etc were all basically Hilary’s thoughts but with no ‘She thought’. That said, the majority was written in Third person limited. Which is just a fancy way of saying that I was writing in third person but with a tight focus on one person’s point of view. And, in my case, an extremely tight focus to the point of the text sometimes imitating her thoughts.

          …Did that make sense? As a side note, I’ve tried and TRIED to put together a post about POVs but it always falls apart on me. I’ve gotten a few texts out (including one fascinating one about unreliable narrators) and so hopefully I’ll be able to work out something. Can’t guarantee it’ll be before NaNo though.

          I can understand why you’d get angry with her (and you have no idea how much actually getting an emotional ‘I need to physically step away from the computer’ kind of reaction makes me happy). -I- got angry with her. While I was writing it, it took everything in me not to make her get up and leave and go do something (Because feeling discontent with things isn’t inherently wrong. It’s not -doing- anything about it that makes it irritating) but I think it worked out better that way.

          As a side note, going back and analysing my own stuff for structural things (I hadn’t noticed I was using free indirect speech. I was going for a mood and using it suited my purposes) is kinda trippy.

          • Lainy says:

            See, i’m ok with Mufasa’s death. The whole ‘you have forgotten me’ cloud thingy tugs on the heart strings a bit. But i also think darth vader so it completely ruins the mood.

            Now, Bambi’s mum…. *tears up* yeah i’m never watching movie again *sniff*. Never affected me then but i can’t even think about it these days. Oh poor Bambi! Damn disney movies.

            Ha ha, the post will come to you eventually. I’ll still be here anyhow. I dare say i’ll be experimenting with NaNo.

            I’m sorry, i made you trip out. XD

            Also, i’m totally blaming Jake for my lack of doing anything these days. I said i was bored once and he told me to go read manga. I said i didn’t know any so he told me to go pick a random one…. i think i’m on my 5th series at the moment. My eyes hurt. I’m also really sick of all these vampire ones i stumble upon… having said that really like stories around demons *shrugs*

  3. Sometimes it takes my writing pages before it meanders to the true beginning. The tough part is knowing what to cut. I tend to write, let it sit, and then brutally cut every single thing that does not have a reason for being in the story. I take the edict to ‘kill your darlings’ very seriously. It makes for a better final version.

    • Meg Laverick says:

      haha I totally understand where you’re coming from. Except that my writing always manages to start off with a completely different tone. So I always have to go back and rewrite my beginnings once I’ve found the tone I’m going to use for the rest of the piece.

      Killing your darlings is really the best thing you can do (Who was it who said that if you ever find yourself reading a bit of your own work and marvelling at how well written it is you should delete it?) But it’s also really difficult! Unless I’ve had a few months to forget the thing before I try to edit I just can’t bring myself to cut things- even when I read them and the ‘Laaaaame’ siren is going off in my head. That’s why I normally farm out my editing to my beta. She’s not emotionally attached.

  4. Oh, yes, there must be some amount of time between the writing and the killing! The more I like the stuff, the longer I need to wait to see clearly. It helps if I’ve started writing something else; which is where Write Or Die might come in! I don’t know how I hadn’t heard of that until this post, but thanks!

  5. I appreciate, cause I found exactly what I was looking for. You have ended my 4 day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye

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