Michille: Beginnings

New-BeginningsFor 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?

7 thoughts on “Michille: Beginnings

  1. Michille, I love the opening sentence of Dorothy Dunnett’s The Ringed Castle: “Not to every young girl is it given to enter the harem of the Sultan of Turkey and return to her homeland a virgin.” There’s a whole lot of book in that one sentence.

    I’d give my opening scene maybe 7/10. It starts in the right place, gets the right characters on the page with the right dynamic, and propels the reader into the story, but it could be better. I’m letting it sit for a while until I’ve finished working on the third act, but I also entered it in another couple of contests so that I’ll have half a dozen fresh perspectives by the time I’m ready to look at it again.

    • Jilly, I love that opening line. I am considering entering some contests, too, so I need to brush up my opening. I’m thinking I’ll look at all three manuscripts I have and see which one has the best opening. I haven’t looked at the first two in a while. And very soon, I need to get cracking on number 4.

  2. The opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice is always a favorite of mine—the one about a man of income is known to be in need of a wife (don’t have the exact wording on me at this moment). Otherwise, I’m more likely to be put off by an opening—if it’s about the weather (“It was a dark and stormy night”) or even if it starts with “It was.” I’ll give the opening a few paragraphs to get me to a place where I want to read further—I don’t have to be hooked by the first sentence—but of course, it’s always good to be hooked sooner rather than later.

    • I really like that P&P opening too — it promises the readers a lot of things (and then the book delivers on the promise). I wonder at what point in the writing Jane Austen came up with it?

      (-: I have a certain fondness for “It was a dark and stormy night” too. I’m all over the so-called “pathetic fallacy” where the weather echoes the feelings of the people. Plus, I like night time thunderstorms. A dark and stormy night promises a lot of flashes and bangs and downright creepiness, but it also promises a sunny morning — at least in my mind.

      • And sometimes, a talented author can turn “a dark and stormy night” opening into a fabulous book. And my author’s imagination says, “Me. Me. Me. I’m going to turn one of those cliched openings into a fabulous book.” Someday.

  3. Not at all satisfied with my beginning… yet.

    I think part of my problem is that there are so many great openings out there. A personal favorite is Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races: “It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.”

  4. “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Also (yeah, I know how conceited this sounds) mine for my current WIP: He was damned if he didn’t and damned if he did.

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