Begin Again

Every aspiring author knows how important the beginning to your novel is.  Agents and editors, and later, consumers might not judge a book by its cover, but they will definitely judge it by its first few pages.  No pressure, right?  Your beginning has to a lot of work to do.  It has to set the stage, introduce the main character, hook your reader, fulfill the promise of your story, and propel the story forward.  It's a tall order for a few opening pages.

I love writing beginnings.  The first twenty pages of a novel are my favorite.  In fact, I could start a hundred novels before I finish one.  Writing a beginning is a bit like reading one. The book holds so many infinite possibilities. Characters and scenes yet to be discovered.  Here are some things I've noticed about great beginnings.   

 A great beginning starts with a change.  At SCBWI in LA this summer, Judy Blume said that novels should begin on the first day that something different happens in your character's life.  It's natural to want to pepper your beginning with backstory, as a means of introducing the characters, and helping us understand their life before we shake it up.  We, as writers, need this information to help us understand how the character's life is going to be changed by the inciting incident.  But our readers?  Not so much.  Readers don't want to see characters going about a normal day, they want something interesting to happen.  And change is interesting.  Part of the fun of reading a novel is discovering the characters as we go.  Tension can be built by withholding backstory and revealing it in small pieces throughout the novel.  In THE HUNGER GAMES, although we start out seeing Katniss going through the motions of a normal day, hunting with Gale, we know immediately that this day is different.  It's the day of the lottery, and there is tension underlying everything Katniss does. The first chapter culminates in the lottery, with Katniss's sister being selected for the games.  Katniss volunteers to go in her place, and we know her life will never be the same.  You didn't really want to read a whole novel about Katniss and Gale hunting for game and bartering with the townspeople, did you?  After all, the hook of the novel is a televised game show where the contestants are children who must battle to the death.  Which is nice segue to point number two.

A great beginning fulfills the promise of your story.  Have you ever read the back cover copy of a novel and thought, wow, I must read this book.  And then read the first 100 pages and wondered when, if ever, you were going to get to the story advertised?  I hope not, and you certainly don't want your readers to feel cheated.  If your book is the story about a girl who sees ghosts, we don't want to wait one hundred pages before she sees a ghost.  We want ghosts!  Even if your character doesn't realize what she's seeing, there should she be some hint that things are not right.  Your first chapter should tie into your hook somehow.  In the first HARRY POTTER, we start out seeing Harry in his every day world, but we quickly learn that today is different, because Harry speaks to a snake during a trip to the zoo, than magically sets the snake free.  The opening fulfills the promise of the story about a boy wizard while providing a nice introduction to Harry and his world.

A great beginning makes us care about what happens to the main character.   A great beginning invests us in the main character's problems and journey.  We have to be able to relate to the character on some level before we'll commit to the next 299 pages of story.  It helps if the character is likeable, but it's okay if they're not, if they're interesting enough that we want to find out what makes them the way they are.  A great voice can sometimes be enough to make us interested in the character.  Think about Holden Caulfield from CATCHER IN THE RYE.  He is not the most likeable character, but the immediacy of his voice draws you right in.  It helps if the character is placed in a situation that we can relate to.  The opening should give us a reason to root for the character in some way.  In THE HUNGER GAMES, Katniss spends her days hunting to ensure her mother and sister have enough to eat.  When her little sister is selected for the Games, Katniss volunteers to go in her place, even though it means her certain death.  It's hard not to care for a character who cares so much about her family and is willing to literally trade her own life for her sister.

A great beginning propels the story forward.   Have you ever read a beginning that's full of action and suspense only to end on a cliffhanger and have the next chapter start six months earlier?  It's an artifice that drives me a little crazy.  I'm not saying it can't be done well, because it most definitely can, but it's not really a beginning, is it?  Many times, it's a disguise for the boring backstory or slow beginning that follows.  A good beginning should get the reader wondering what happens next?  A good beginning introduces questions or at least goals.  Questions propel the characters into action and the reader into the next page and the next.  Big questions may take the entire novel to answer, others can be answered along the way- only to present new and more complicated questions that need to be solved.  The questions can be character driven (i.e. questions the characters want answered) or they could be questions raised in the reader's mind by hints that things are not quite right.  If a character has a clear goal, the reader should be invested in whether or not the character achieves that goal.  This can be accomplished by raising the stakes.  Why is this particular goal so important to this particular character?  What the the rewards if successful?  The consequences if not?  If the stakes are life or death for the character (metaphorically or otherwise) the reader is more likely to be invested in the outcome and keep reading.  No one is likely to care about your first chapter about a character who gets a B on a science test when she wanted an A.  (Yawn). But what if a B is the difference between being sent to an institution of higher learning that will lead to a high level job in a dystopian society or being forced to work in a manual labor job that few survive?  What if she knows that her father will beat her if he finds about she got a B on the test? 

A great beginning avoids cliches.  I had no idea that there was such a thing as a cliche beginning, but after attending a few conferences, I learned that agents and editors see so many manuscripts, and so many beginnings, that there are a few that make them numb. And let's face it, when you want your book to stand out among the mountain of slush or piles of books at the bookstore, it's probably not a good idea to use an opening that your reader has seen a hundred times before.  Remember how Snoopy used to try to write a novel, and he always started the same way?  "It was a dark and stormy night..."  Apparently, it used to be cliche to start your novel with the weather. Who knew? In young adult novels, a lot of novels start with a character waking up in the morning and thinking about the coming day.  Starting with a dream or a vision is another one that comes up frequently.  Lots of books start on the first day of school or the day a character arrives in a new town or at a new house.  None of these are "wrong," they're just natural starting points for change.  That makes them easy, and common. Strive for uncommon.  Maybe your character has been at her new school for weeks before anyone talks to her.  Start there.  Maybe your character has a recurring dream that she can relay later in the story, during an actual scene when she sees something eerily familiar.  Your beginning matters too much to take the easy way out.  What's the most interesting thing about your book?  I bet it isn't your character's bedroom.  Find a way to work the most interesting part of your hook into your opening.  Hint at what's coming.  Make us care.

The great thing about openings is there is no one way to do them.  Oftentimes the opening that comes to you the first time you sit down to write is not anywhere close to the opening you have when the book is done.

Try this writing exercise:  Take your first chapter and rewrite it from scratch.  Change the setting and situation to reflect the strongest aspects of your novel.  Make sure that your new first chapter has high stakes that are related to the hook of your novel. Surprised at the results?  I hope so.  We like surprises.


Very true--Great post on beginnings. Though from all the publishing meetings I attend, a cover can make or break you, too! But that's the beauty of repackaging.

That cliffhanger/flash-forward thing (called a "frame story" I think?) drives me INSANE. I've been seeing it a lot in crime television shows lately.

I don't like it in fiction, either, but thankfully I don't see it as often there.

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