By Kelley Lindberg
Beginnings. They aren’t easy. You’d think they’d be. After all, that’s where every story starts. How hard can it be, really? You just jump in a start telling the story.
But many potentially good stories are stabbed through the heart by the dull wooden stake of a lackluster beginning.
The problem with most story beginnings is that that’s where we usually start writing, which means our writing for this particular story is not at its best yet. As the author, we’re just beginning to become familiar with our characters. The conflicts may be in our head, but they’re a tad murky. The plotline is often a moving target. Secondary plots and characters are just starting to appear on the sidelines, awaiting their chance to jump in. The voice this story wants you to use hasn’t yet solidified.
We’re tying on our dancing shoes, but the music hasn’t started yet.
(Yes, I’m mixing metaphors with wild abandon. It’s that kind of day.)
So it’s no wonder our beginnings are usually the weakest part of a first draft. Unfortunately, the beginning is also where agents, editors, and readers start their relationship with your story. If your beginning is weak, you will lose them. Period. You seldom get a second chance. So a stellar beginning isn’t just a nice thing, it’s an essential thing.
That’s why many authors will go back and rewrite/revise their beginnings after the entire novel is finished. By that point, you know the story intimately, you understand your characters and what they have at stake, and the voice you’re using for this story has become solid and strong and second-nature to you.
But even then, your beginning may still intimidate you. Maybe you know it feels slow, exposition-heavy, confusing, or cliched. But you’ve looked at it so many times, you can’t figure out what to cut or change or strengthen.
So here are some ideas to consider when eyeing your beginning. None of them are “rules.” They are just suggestions that might help you identify a path into reshaping that beginning into something worthy of the rest of your story.
- I like stories that start when something pivotal is happening. Don’t start me off with backstory. Don’t show me an ordinary day in the life of your character. Don’t drop me into the story right after something interesting has happened, so that your character has to bring me up to speed. Kick me right into the scene where something vital is changing, and let me see the heart of that change beating right there in front of me. It doesn’t have to be action-oriented (dropping us into a car chase doesn’t give us any foundation for why we should care), but it has to be a meaningful moment in the character’s world.
- Your story’s beginning is making me a promise that the rest of the story has to keep. Using character, conflict (stakes), setting, and voice, your beginning’s promise should give me a hint of what’s coming. In Beginnings, Middles, & Ends, Nancy Kress explains that there are two kinds of promises: an intellectual promise (you’ll learn something) or an emotional promise (you’ll experience something). If your beginning sounds like this will be a paranormal romance, and it turns out to be an intellectual thriller, or if your opening page was funny, but the rest of the story is serious and the humor disappears, your beginning lied to me, and I’m going to be frustrated, no matter how good the rest of the story turns out to be. It wasn’t what I was led to expect, so I’m going to feel let down.
- Your beginning should set the theme (main idea), tone, and framework for the story. Does it do all three currently? Could it do them better?
Look at the beginning chapters of some of your favorite books – the ones that grabbed you from the get-go. Do they make promises you’re eager to see them keep? How do the first few paragraphs hook you into the story? Then look at your own first few paragraphs and see if you are providing the same level of emotional impact. If not, you’ve got your first clues for what to change.
Need some brainstorming help? On Saturday, October 12, 2013, SCBWI is presenting a Writing Boot Camp with award-winning author and popular speaker Alane Ferguson, who will take your first 10 pages from your manuscript and show which components of your story are working, and which could be stronger. This day-long intensive workshop will be held at the Sons of the Utah Pioneers building, 3301 E 2920 S, Salt Lake City. For more details and to register for the workshop, see http://bootcampalaneferguson.eventzilla.net/.