Thoughts on Beginnings 1 – Keeping Them Reading

I intend ‘Here I Go’ to be not just a daily blog of my doings, but also a sort of think out loud exploration of writing as I learn my way.   That said, seeing as how this is the beginning of my journey, let’s talk about beginnings.   Most of the stuff I discuss in this article is general.  That’s OK.  Once I have some success under my belt, I will be able to work from examples and give more concrete information.  Everything discussed today is more gut driven.

Beginnings are important.  They set the tone of the story, they introduce plot or characters or both, they have to let the reader know pretty up front what type of story they are setting in to read.  Is this a fairy tale?  Harlequin romance?  Epic fantasy?  Murder mystery?  Noir detective story?  All of the above combined into one?  I read once that the late Robert Jordan, author of the Wheel of Time series, threw away and rewrote the first 3 chapters of the first book of the series (The Eye of the World) a dozen times, just to get the feel right.  In other words, it’s an important bit of your story, and important to do right.

I’ve read a lot about how to start a story or novel, different techniques, advice, lists of things to do and not to do.  Advice abounds, as it’s a place that so many people get tripped up.

(There are generally 3 places that trip people up while writing: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.  Everything else seems to be pretty simple)

Why are beginnings so hard?  Mainly, it’s because the strength of your beginning in a very real way determines whether your audience will even bother continuing on to the middle and end.  How many books or magazines have you picked up, read or skimmed the first page, and thought, “meh.” and then put it back down?  That’s an author whose beginning didn’t work for you.  Your beginning has a job to do, and that job is to interest the reader enough to keep them reading  The first paragraph has to leave you wanting to read the second paragraph, the first page needs to carry your interest enough to turn to the second page, and so on.  If you can keep someone hooked for the first 5-10 pages, then you’re generally pretty safe that they’ll continue on from there.

So, how do you do that?  What’s the trick?  (Hint – whenever someone asks ‘What’s the trick’, the trick is that there is no trick.  It’s practice, and judgement)  If there’s no trick, then how about guidelines?

Don’t start with the weather. Introduce your main character right away. Start with a strong declarative statement. Start with a flashback. Don’t ever start with a flashback. Start with character.

All the different rules and advice can be overwhelming, and wind up not doing the one thing it needs to – help.

One rule that is often mentioned, for instance, is to never start a story with unattributed dialog.  So just dumping you right in to a quote of someone talking, and you have no idea who the person is, what they’re doing, or why they’re saying it.  It supposedly leaves the reader feeling lost and disoriented.  This sounds reasonable.  But one of my all time favorite novels, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, begins each chapter with unattributed dialog.  The very first page of the novel is a conversation between two people, essentially in a blank white room, about a third person.  Who are they?  What in the heck are they talking about?  In that story, sure I found it a touch jolting and disorienting the first time I read it, but it works on the whole.

Many people advise you to start a story in the middle of some sort of action.  This is referred to as in media res, which translates to ‘in the middle of things.’  If the reader is busy trying to find out why a space ship exploded in the first sentence, then they’ll likely stick around long enough to get invested in the characters before that curiosity wears off, and then they’re hooked.  But this too has a downside.  I read a book recently where every single section break started with a scene in media res, where you felt that the main character was in life or death danger, only to find out half a page later that it was a misdirect solely for the purposes of page turning.  I call that cheating.  It’s like when a TV show starts an episode with some chase sequence, and the two main characters are either in grave external danger, or acting out of character and betraying each other, followed immediately by a title card flashing on the screen that says “X hours earlier”.  When the scene plays out in order, you finally have the missing context that lets you realize what the chase was about, and it inevitably is far less impressive than you had imagined it to be at first.  I think we should all call out to Hollywood writers en masse to call for a moratorium on this.  It’s overplayed, overdone, and in general just done poorly.

Personally, my favorite bit of advice on how to write beginnings comes from Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells in the Writing Excuses Podcast.  At least, that’s where I heard it first.  Not sure where they got it.  The advice, basically, is that your opening sentence or paragraph needs to have some sort of conflict in it.  Something that says, ‘This isn’t quite right.’  It’s a small hook.  Just enough to rouse your curiosity, but not to promise you a big mystery. Something intriguing.

In my opinion, the main thing to keep in mind is to remember that no one rule or piece of advice works in all situations.  You have to see what works for your story specifically.  If you want to start in media res, that’s fine, but don’t let your introductory action and danger be a cheat.  If you’re starting with unattributed dialog, make that dialog say something that grabs attention.  

In the end, all that matters is, once the reader starts reading, keep them going!

Here I Go,

Matt

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About Matthew Shean

Matthew Shean is the author of several forthcoming novels and myriad short stories. He received his Ph.D. from the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences in New York, NY, and spent 20 years as a research scientist throughout the northeastern United States. He now lives in Long Island (against his will), with his loving family and disdainful cats.
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One Response to Thoughts on Beginnings 1 – Keeping Them Reading

  1. N. Hamster says:

    It was a Dark and Stormy Night…

    Like

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