Starting in the Present Moment

One of the most important notes I can give to an aspiring writer is a gentle reminder that they should start in the present moment when they begin their story. Often, a story will start with generalizations or philosophy. Maybe a description of the weather or a person’s mood. Perhaps physical details or action that hasn’t really been given a time or place. For example, take this:

First days of school were always the worst. They made Caylee feel bad. Nothing was ever exactly how she wanted it to be, and she supposed that was the point of life. But first days were the worst, because they combined a hope she should’ve probably learned to ignore by now with the eventual disappointment of growing up.

Not only is there telling about emotion (“They made Caylee feel bad”) but the writer here (me) is hitting the reader over the head with the coming of age theme of growing up and tempering expectations. Yawn. Notice that we don’t have a concrete place yet, nor do we have a specific time (it’s the first day of school but is the character at home in the early morning, on her way to homeroom, reflecting on it at night, etc. etc. etc.).

The reader is in limbo and, without any additional action that could potentially make this clunker of an opening go down more smoothly, there’s really nothing here to hold on to in any serious way.

Your beginning is Prime Real Estate, remember. Not only do you want to start strong and grabby, but you also want to get away from the vague, get away from the general, get away from the philosophy, stop writing bumper sticker expressions of your theme, and go toward the specific and the well-defined. In that vein, a reboot of the above example could be something like:

Caylee tried to close her locker but the stupid thing stuck. Only five minutes before homeroom on yet another “first day of school” that she was supposed to be so excited about. She imagined what it would be like to walk in late and have everyone staring at her. Suddenly the brand new white toes of her brand new pink Converse felt fake–like she was obviously trying way too hard. She kicked the locker door closed and scuffed her right shoe. Great. A visual reminder of how perfect-seeming days usually ended in disappointment.

A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but we know exactly when and where we are, and I’m still working with some of the same emotions and ideas. Notice how the much more specific thoughts about them really help do away with that limbo/hazy/floaty feeling inspired by vague statements like “the eventual disappointment of growing up” and “First days of school were always the worst.” These same issues have now become much more specific to the time and place, and also to the character.

Make sure that, within the first two paragraphs, the reader can always point to exactly where and when your story starts. If you need a lot of time to get to grounding your reader, you haven’t found your beginning just yet.

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  1. Susan’s avatar

    Thank you as always for slapping exactly the tool I need in my palm just when I need it the most.

  2. Peter Dudley’s avatar

    I plan to apply this, as I go through final revisions on my current WIP, to the beginning of every chapter.

    Which brings up a question: Have you done a blog post about how and where to break chapters? I suspect my YA chapters are too long, and in my drafts I think I tend to break them at the “now I can take a deep breath” point rather than at the “OMG what happens next” point. Trying to break that habit and fix in revision, but any tips on length and pacing at the chapter level would be appreciated.

  3. Cristy’s avatar

    This is so helpful. I often find I start too early (I haven’t quite got the hang of ‘in-late-out-early’ yet). And I never considered the importance of setting.
    Thanks for posting.

  4. Dianna Winget’s avatar

    Peter, there are no hard and fast rules on chapter length or exactly where you should break them. I’ve seen very short ones and very long ones in YA, or maybe a shorty followed by a longer one. Chapter endings don’t always have to be dramatic either, but they should make the reader want to turn the page and see what happens.

    One of the best books I’ve ever read on beginnings is Les Edgerton’s “Hooked.” Check it out in line with Mary’s post.

  5. Lisha Cauthen’s avatar

    Yes, oh, yes.

    From picture books to YA novels, when you find the true beginning of your manuscript, a light bulb goes off.

    Not only does starting in the right place grab your reader, but it focuses the entire story.

    P.S.–Looking forward to meeting you at the SCBWI-KS conference in a few weeks!

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