For this post, I went back to my McDaniel files. This comes straight out of my notes from WRT-524, the fourth class in the series. We looked at beginnings and endings and at ways to tie the two together. I suppose some writers get a great beginning on the page from the start, but most fiddle for a while before deciding where the beginning is and honing it to as close to perfection as a writer ever feels he/she has achieved.
The Beginning is important for a variety of reasons. It’s one of the first things an agent/editor sees. It introduces your story world to the reader. Some people, if they are lucky enough to have a brick-and-mortar book store nearby, will pick up a book and read the first paragraph/page to decide if they want to buy it, although some digital books now have previews as well. It sets reader expectations for the rest of the story. It “hooks” the reader (or so we hope).
The reader should get a sense of the setting, the main character, and the main conflict right at the start. The reader should also have some sense of what kind of a story it is – comedy, suspense, horror, etc. It should give enough information to interest the reader while still leaving them wondering about something. Your character is terrified to meet with the stock broker/attorney/doctor/ex-husband, but you don’t tell your reader why (yet). Your character is hunched behind a trash dumpster trying to tuck a 12-inch statue into the lining of his jacket but you don’t tell the reader where he got it, why he is hiding it, and who he is hiding it from. All of this doesn’t need to be in the first line or paragraph, but it should be written into the story early on.
The beginning shouldn’t be a little biography about your main character (or about a minor character) or a lengthy set up about how your character got to the dumpster. Although I’ve read several stories that start with the main character driving down the road, the prevailing opinion is to never start with driving and thinking. Starting from a helicopter’s-view, detailed description of sweeping vista of hills and dales of the surrounding landscape and narrowing down until you are in your character’s garden while she confronts the nest of snakes might work in cinematography, but generally doesn’t work on the page. Give the reader the biography, the backstory, the thoughts, and the landscape in bits and pieces as needed throughout the story.
I’m a sucker for the good one- or two-line openers. Nora Roberts has a good one in Inner Harbor. “Phillip Quinn died at the age of thirteen. Since the overworked and underpaid staff at the Baltimore City Hospital emergency room zapped him back in less than ninety seconds, he wasn’t dead very long.” The reader knows that Phillip Quinn is the main character, he has at least been to Baltimore if not lived there, and he wasn’t in a situation normal to a typical thirteen-year-old.
Are there beginnings of stories that are your favorites? Are you satisfied with the beginning of your story?