Fix Your Beginning

Let’s begin at, well… enough smart-assery for today. But seriously, let’s talk your beginning. The first sentence of your novel. The first paragraph, the first scene. This will, in most cases, determine whether an agent reads on or not. Whether an editor reads on or not. Whether a reader picks you book up, scans the jacket and then the first bit, and buys it… or not.

Before I tell you what to do, I will tell you what not to do, in no particular order:

  • Waking up: DO NOT. DON’T. Don’t even think about it. Many of the manuscripts I get begin with a character waking up. Why are you making this choice? Most good stories begin with a character who has just been knocked out of their usual equilibrium or is going into a tense situation. Surely, you can begin in a more interesting place than waking up. And even if the character is waking up into their strange new situation, just change it. Make them awake. Do you really want to be exactly like everyone else I reject today? On that note…
  • Regaining Consciousness: This is also a no-no. I know a lot of people like starting their books moments after a character has just received a blow to the head. Here’s the problem. A reader wants to be grounded when they begin a story. They’re looking for basic information: Who is this character? Where are they? When are they? What’s going on with them? A little bit of confusion is fine, but that doesn’t play well with a reader, especially at the beginning of a story, because all the reader wants is information. If your character is confused, your reader is confused, they’re working hard, they’d rather put your book down and go have a cookie. You have to hook them… not give them a headache. So if your very own character is asking “Who am I? Where am I? What year is it? What’s going on?” then your reader will not have anything to hold on to. They’ll put your story down.
  • Scene Setting: People care about characters, not landscapes. Start your story with a person, not with beautiful prose about the glorious rolling hills of I Don’t Care. This especially goes for weather. Remember how “It was a dark and stormy night” is lambasted as being the worst first sentence ever written? Lots and lots of people start out talking about the weather… especially stormy weather… because they think it’s dramatic and will heighten tension. No, relationships between two people who want different things, in a scene together, are dramatic and heighten tension.
  • Emotional Scene Setting: The same goes for a long description of a character’s emotions. I read a lot of manuscripts that begin with things like, “He was so depressed. Depressed-er than depressed. Things were so wrong, they’d never be right again. He felt like he’d been plunged underwater, all the colors and the sounds and the joy… gone!” (Obviously, this is bad on purpose.) Well, this is fine, but we don’t know why things are so terrible for Emo Boy, so we don’t care. It’s a bad place to start.
  • Normal: This is perhaps the biggest cliche I see in novel openings. “Jimmy was just a normal kid, everything about his life was so totally normal. He woke up when he typically does and walked the normal path to his normal school. ‘What a normal day!’ he told his usual friends, Norm and Al…” etc. And then, something completely changes him into an extraordinary kid!!!! WOW!!! Okay, so, granted, this is usually how a book starts. A character’s “normal” way of life, their equilibrium, has been knocked off-kilter. Now they have to find a new normal. That’s fine. BUT DON’T TALK ABOUT IT! SHOW US! (More about showing vs. telling later.)
  • Backstory: A long prose-filled retelling of the backstory of a character, place or event isn’t a good start, for me. I don’t know the character, event or place yet, and I’d rather see it with my own eyes, see it in action, than being told about it. Work backstory and context into the prose later, but not in the very beginning (and not too much of it).

I bet you’re asking yourself: “Well, what’s a good place to start my story?” If you hadn’t gathered from the above, a good beginning involves tension, conflict, relationship and characters. In other words, a scene would be a very good place to start! You have a main character, you have what they want, you have what’s getting in the way right now, and you have another character. Toss them like the Chaos Salad they are and give us a scene to launch your story with action.

It’s called in medias res in Latin. And no, I don’t know a lot of Latin, just enough to make me seem slightly pretentious. It means “in the middle of things.” Launch right into some conflict with more than one character and catch the reader up with backstory and quick flashback as needed. Start with a scene. Most movies start like this, so do most plays. You don’t often go to a movie and see the main character monologue for 15 minutes before the action starts, right? The same should be true for your book. Start with a scene that shows the reader, a) who the character is, b) what they want and c) how things have changed for them recently. Try imagining this scenario for your characters and writing a scene for the beginning of your story. It’s hard, but beginnings are often the most time-consuming and most-frequently rewritten bits of a novel.

Speaking of which, there’s also a little something called the “promise” of a novel that you need to consider in the opening pages. I need to know, after the first 10 pages, what the rest of the novel will be about. This is the promise you make to the reader when you start out. You don’t have to say, explicitly, “The rest of this book will be about alien warfare.” But little Jimmy should at least be gearing up to fight aliens or in alien warfare class or something so that, in my head, I get a sense for where you’re going with this. Don’t start the book off with Jimmy in alien warfare class and then make the rest of the story about his passionate fight to save the redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest. Both stories are fine, but you need to make sure you make a promise to your reader — my book will be about _____ — and stick to it. We won’t know how far you’ll go or where your plot will take us, but if we’re prepared for the general idea of your story from the first page, we’ll follow you very far. Up next… plot!

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  1. Stina’s avatar

    Most of the entries in the Miss Snark’s First Victim Secret Agent contest usually begin with one of these six techniques. And usually the writer gets a slap on the wrist by at least one critter (and the agent ;)). Great post, Mary!

  2. Abby Annis’s avatar

    It’s very difficult to find that perfect starting point and has prompted several rewrites for me. I think I’ve finally found that perfect point, but I’ve said that before. I’m no longer doing any of the no-nos you have listed here, so maybe, just maybe… :)

    Great post! I blogged about this today too.

  3. Marc’s avatar

    You’re on it! I talk about this, too, in my workshop “Draw a Story…” Among the others I encourage writers to avoid in beginnings: weather, everyday dialogue (“How are you?”), sound effects, grand proclamations (“This was going to be the worst day of my life”).

  4. Jessica Morrison’s avatar

    It was a normal day when I began reading this post….. *kidding* !!

    Seriously though, awesome post Mary! I often stumble (trip/face plant) at the beginnings especially and this is a lovely list that I’ll definitely be keeping in mind. Thanks once again!

  5. bjanderson’s avatar

    Ooo. This is good stuff. Thanks, Mary!

  6. Debra D.’s avatar

    So you mean, changing my opening to, “It was a dark and stormy night when I woke up, totally depressed. Only, I couldn’t remember who I was! But, I could remember this little girl, way back when…..” would be bad? Curses! :)

    Srsly, tho–great post! I will definitely keep those things in mind and check back in for more tips. Also, it was awesome meeting you and having you as a Crit Group leader at the workshop. You had excellent suggestions for “missed opportunities” in our work.

    Now, off to write! :)

  7. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    Stina–I’ve seen this on Miss Snarks First Victim site as well.

    I like this list. Starts are so important. There’s a neat contest out there called Fab Five . . . and it just judges the hook of your manuscript. That was one of the best contests I’d entered before. . . I learned a bunch.

    Anyway. Thanks for this. Nice stuff here.

  8. Jackee’s avatar

    What? No dream sequences? Say it ain’t so! …haha

    I once heard a Delacorte Yearling winner say chop the first 1/3 to 1/2 and start there. Perhaps that’s over-simplified, but it helped me remember what a beginning should look like… Latin-speaking or no. :o)

  9. Patti’s avatar

    I changed my starting point many times and finally went back to my original starting point, which was a scene instead of back story. Great post and a good reminder as I start my next project.

  10. Kristi’s avatar

    Great info – and I’m a huge fan of smart-assery. :)

  11. D. D. Tannenbaum’s avatar

    Excellent information! Thank you so much for taking the time to post it!

  12. a.j. finnegan’s avatar

    Awesome stuff, Mary! I’m reading all of this, so keep it coming! This way, you won’t have to repeat it all over again for me :) Do we actually get some kind of diploma after this personal MFA program?

  13. Mary’s avatar

    Amy — Ha! I’m sure I could throw some kind of certificate together, but it’d probably have the reek of “eau de clip art” about it. :)

  14. Jade’s avatar

    Great post as usual. My first 3 ms began with someone dreaming/waking up. I’m glad I shook that problem. It took months of intensive therapy and some heavy medication, but I’m good now.

  15. Kristi’s avatar

    Although I should add that I think once you’re established, you can break these rules and get away with it. If I remember correctly, The Hunger Games begins with the MC waking up – and the book was amazing!

  16. Mary’s avatar

    Kristi — This is a good point. If you’re Suzanne Collins and you somehow decide to dump your agent and want to query around with your next worldwide bestseller, I will definitely read past the first chapter of your character-waking-up book! But all kidding aside… let me make this perfectly clear… YOU CAN DO ANYTHING IF YOU DO IT WELL, DELIBERATELY AND IF AN AMAZING, MIND-BLOWING BOOK FOLLOWS YOUR CONVENTIONAL BEGINNING. However, you need to be really, really, really, really (future worldwide bestseller in training, honestly) good before you can take cliches and common tropes and play with them or turn them on their ear. In the meantime, before you get to the level where you’re consciously playing with cliches and breaking rules, try to bend your imagination a bit and come up with something other than this.

  17. Jenny Martin’s avatar

    “the glorious rolling hills of I Don’t Care”? Uh-oh. That sounds a little too familiar.

    *tucks tail between legs.*

    ;)

    Thanks for sharing the worst, so we can learn to write better.

  18. Theresa Milstein’s avatar

    Morning always seems like such a logical place to begin. The manuscript I’m working on now has a quick reference regarding character waking up before the alarm and getting dressed, but her choice of clothes speaks volumes about her main problem. I hope I’m not scaring agents away.

  19. Mary’s avatar

    Theresa — Logical, in this case, isn’t exciting or original. We all know that people, logically, wake up after having been asleep for a period of time. Why not start with her getting dressed? Why describe something we all know happens and we all do every day? People read fiction to get away from that sort of stuff. Just playing devil’s advocate. I read 15 beginnings in my slush the other week and 5 started with a character waking up. Do you really want to be like all of those people who are making the same safe, boring choices?

  20. Theresa Milstein’s avatar

    You’re right, you’re right. I love my first line, but I’m going to play around with it. Thanks, Mary.

  21. Tracy Clark’s avatar

    Ha! “friends Norm and Al”. I love reading your blog, Mary. I find that it’s one I don’t want to miss. Great work and great advice.!

  22. Mary’s avatar

    Tracy — Finally someone appreciated my “Norm and Al” joke! Yessss! Not that I was waiting around for that, or anything. :)

  23. janet’s avatar

    Mary,
    Oh crap. I broke the rule about starting with someone waking up. But what if it’s a kid who is on a field trip to the zoo, who has dozed off on the bus and has to be woken up by the bus driver because the rest of the class has already exited and gone into the zoo. It was meant to show characterization–an unmotivated teenager, not as some symbolic thing like he’s waking up to a new experience although I suppose that’s happening too. It was also supposed to be kind of funny. Are you going to burn my submission when I send it?

  24. janet’s avatar

    Okay so you need to totally ignore my previous post. After I wrote it I took a look at my first two paragraphs, threw out the sleeping thing, had my character do something different, and now it’s way better. And it was so easy to fix. You rock!

  25. Mary’s avatar

    Janet — Wow. That was easy. I literally had to do NOTHING but sit here and let you work it out by yourself. :)

  26. Theresa Milstein’s avatar

    Mary, I took your advice to heart, and made the necessary changes. Now I don’t know why I was so attached to a bad opening. Thank you.

  27. Marjorie Light’s avatar

    Mary – Great advice! Each year I give my 7th grade students small piles of new mid-grade & YA books to sort into ones they find intriguing and ones that don’t grab them immediately. They examine them for the “promise of the first page,” as this is often one of the main way they choose books when browsing in the school’s library. (Others include recommendations and looking at the cover.) After the activity they share their impressions of the novels. Invariably, the books they choose to read are ones that jump right into the action and reveal the character in the first page or two. I think all writers should bookmark your revision page and refer to it often…I know I do! Thanks again!

  28. Brian Higginson’s avatar

    An invaluable list. I tend to fall in to the backstory trap. I once heard a succesful writer use an angling metaphor – bait the hook, hook them, play them, reel them in. I don’t know that I’ve done that succesfully yet – as yiu say elsewhere: each time you write, you get better.

  29. Marybk’s avatar

    Choke. Didn’t see this column before entering my first 500…ugh.

    I’ve done the wake-up thing. The book kinda revolves, a lot, on magical realism during sleep-mode. Not trying to weasel out of this one, though.

    And all the other bullet points were a breeze.

    I’ll have to go back. Now I’m depressed-er than depressed. At least I’ve failed with about a third of the writing world?

    And at least now I know I’ve failed.

  30. Elaine Long’s avatar

    So here I was so happy that the story I entered in your contest doesn’t start out talking about the weather! Then I find this post and see the word ‘normal’….arg. There it is in my second paragraph. Does it not count if it’s in the second and not first paragraph of a story? lol Well at least now I know that it’s something I need to change or reword somehow. Thank you for this blog Mary. I have found it very helpful and will still read even though I probably blew it with this contest submission. LOL : )

  31. kellye’s avatar

    I love this list, Mary! And, boy, do I struggle with beginnings.

    I have two really difficult scenes that happen early in my current WIP, but the feedback I’ve gotten from editors and agents at conferences is that they want to know my mc at her best before those scenes happen. This makes a lot of sense to me. (Someone recently blogged about the MC having to feel the ground before it shakes. I just goggled and can’t find it, so I can’t give proper credit.)

    But it’s been a real struggle to create some conflict/action that’s not this big, dark action that I know is coming…I submitted one of my many sad attempts at this to a conference first pages workshop…and was mortified when the agent and editor pointed out that, um, having my character sit on a school bus and think wasn’t the best beginning. (I see that now, and I swear I could see that in my crit partners’ work, but it’s so embarrassingly hard to see it in my own work!)

    Thanks, as always, for your posts! (I’m glad you recycle…because even if I’ve read them before, I always need reminders.)

  32. MaryZ’s avatar

    I’ve also heard the advice of needing to know the mc before her status quo is upended. It’s a struggle to know how much ground needs to be covered before it shakes. Mine shakes at the bottom of p. 2.

  33. JJ’s avatar

    I may have the weather one holding me up but none of the others. However, my first sentence sort of starts out with weather but it is more for the character’s benefit rather than actually going into a long description of the weather. I hardly describe the weather after this and it isn’t in the first few paragraphs that I do so.

    If outrunning a tornado on foot was impossible, then trying to outrun three was plain stupid.

    Is that bad? I’ve gotten good feedback but now I’m second guessing it.

  34. Amanda’s avatar

    My first scene shows my main character murdering a patient. In the next scene he explains to his lover that the death was heart failure. The story’s a romance.

    I’d like to think I’ve got an interesting beginning with a strong hook. *hopes*

  35. Rob’s avatar

    I’m glad you retweet these archived posts! Literary guide treasure troves!

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