A Bad Beginning …

… can spell the end of your book, or at least set you back a few paces.

It seems unfair that so much emphasis is placed on the first 10-20 pages of a novel. What about all those amazing plot developments in chapter five? That huge reveal in chapter seven that the antagonist is really the protagonist’s long lost [fill in the blank]? And that tear-jerker of an ending!!

But think about it. Are you going to keep reading a book that doesn’t hold your interest in chapter one? Or even page one, paragraph one, or line one?

The beginning of your book has a lot of important work to do:

  • It should introduce us to the main character(s).
  • It should give us at least a hint of what that character wants and what’s standing in her way.
  • It should give us some sense of the setting – where and when the story takes place and why we should care about the people in it.
  • It should NOT contain information that the reader doesn’t need to know until later in the story.
  • Most importantly, it is the foundation stone for the rest of the book. In terms of story structure, the backbone is seeded in those first pages.

How do we write that first line, first paragraph, first page, or first chapter with all the weight of the world (or at least the weight of the plot) on its (and our) shoulders?

The most important thing to keep in mind is that your first draft will not be your final draft, so take that weight off your shoulders right now and simply get something down on the page. It doesn’t matter if it’s terrible. It doesn’t even matter if it ends up not being the right place to start the story. In my work as a developmental editor, and in my own writing, I sometimes realize that where the story starts (as currently written) is not its true beginning. I’ll often advise other writers – or myself, as the case may be – to dump the existing first chapters and take any important information from them to sprinkle later into the story when the reader really needs to know it.

You may not know exactly what the reader needs to know at what point in the story until well after you’ve written the first draft, but that’s fine. That’s what revision is for.

A very smart author, and one of my favorite M.F.A. advisors, once told me that a novel’s beginning “should shake hands with the ending.” This is a reminder of how important the beginning is as the foundation stone of the story. What are you going to seed in the first chapter that will pay off in dividends later? Remember that in the classic hero’s journey (or heroine’s journey), it’s often said that when the hero returns home after her adventure, she must be changed in some significant way. The protagonist at the end of the book is different from the protagonist who first sets out on the journey. She’s been challenged and changed by the story’s events. Keeping the relationship between the beginning and the ending in mind when you write is a great way to keep a handle on character development.

One of my favorite writing exercises is to picture the final scene of the story and work backwards from there, either drafting or outlining. This will ensure a consistent storyline where the beginning does indeed shake hands with the ending. Most of us outline from the beginning to the end, but doing it the other way around is sometimes helpful.

Of course, now I’m getting into overall story structure when I’m supposed to be talking about beginnings!

What should be in a good beginning?

There are exceptions to ALL the rules, like with the dialogue example above, but it’s easier to justify an exception if you understand the rules.

Well, that’s pretty obvious. I’m sure we’ve all heard something like the following in whatever writing classes we’ve taken or craft books we’ve read:

The first chapter should include a main character in a challenging setting with the promise of an adventure to come. It should introduce the stakes for the character, and the kinds of obstacles likely to be in her way. We also want to see a “hook” or “inciting incident.” As another of my M.F.A. advisors put it, “What makes this day different from any other day in the protagonist’s life?” In other words, what has changed that makes the character need to take action and embark on the story?

The problem is that you can do ALL of this and still have a bad beginning if you fall into any of the following traps:

The dreaded info-dump. This can happen when we’ve introduced all the key elements of the story described above, but have also added a ton of weighty and unnecessary exposition – information about the characters, setting, political scene etc that the reader doesn’t need to know until later, if at all.

Purple prose. Again, you can hit all the important points described above for a good beginning, but immediately alienate your reader with a florid, dense, or even dull writing style. Adjectives and adverbs usually aren’t your friends here. Neither are overly descriptive speech tags in dialogue. “Said” and “asked” are always your best bets.

Disorienting the reader. This is a tricky one. On the one hand we don’t want to give everything away in the first chapter. We want to avoid info-dumps and we want to give the reader some work to do in figuring things out. On the other hand, if you pull all your punches, relying on big reveals later, you may end up with a confused and annoyed reader who puts your book down. You may want your reader to be disoriented in a good way, in a way that makes them want to know more. However, you don’t want them to be frustrated and annoyed with you. In the YA dystopian genre, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi are good examples of books that disorient the reader in a good way. The reader has a lot of questions at the end of those first chapters, but also has a sense of who the protagonist is, what she’s like, what she wants etc.

A specific example of disorienting the reader too much is starting the book with a line of dialogue. Many authors, editors and agents suggest avoiding starting this way because the reader has no idea who’s saying the words, where they are, or why we should care. Of course, many great books and stories DO start with lines of dialogue. The most cited in children’s literature is probably Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. It’s hard to think of a better opening line than: “ ‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

Note that: (a) this is a GREAT line of dialogue; (b) it does introduce the characters – a mother and a father and a young daughter are all included between the dialogue and the dialogue tag; (c) the fact that Fern and her mother are setting the table for breakfast tells you a little something about the setting. In other words, along with being an exception to the rule, this sentence also does a lot to orient the reader in the story. So if you ARE considering starting with a line of dialogue, make sure you give the reader something to go on about who’s speaking and where they are.

Some other tips about what NOT to start with (and these are all from agents and editors I’ve spoken to) include.

  • Don’t start with the character getting up in the morning, putting on her slippers and brushing her teeth. It’s overdone and boring!
  • Don’t start with a dream the character had the night before she got up in the morning, put on her slippers etc. Also overdone.
  • Don’t start with a weather report. Why would we care if it’s a “dark and stormy night” if we don’t know who the protagonist is and what her problem is (unless maybe her problem IS the weather …)
  • Avoid prologues for the sake of flowery prose, but if you need a prologue in terms of information the reader has to know before the story starts, go for it! (Just be careful you’re sure you’re doing it for a good story reason and not to show off your writing style.)

Of course there are exceptions to ALL the rules, like with the dialogue example above, but it’s easier to justify an exception if you understand the rules.

Beginnings are hard. There’s no question about it. And you won’t get it right the first time. You should think about what needs to be in your first chapter, and why, and proceed from there. Your thoughts will change as you draft more of the story and you may decide to draft or outline from back to front or completely out of order. That’s okay. You’ll go back to your opening lines and chapters again and again until they sparkle and they’re ready for prime time. Don’t sweat the early drafts!

(cross posted from Savvy Authors Blog, February 1, 2017)