There are very few things that are entirely obligatory to something written. A skilled writer might be able to manage a story without characters, and many unskilled writers write without characters (posing as characters are names and cardboard cut-outs). Many young writers have their stories without climaxes, and even published works have been found to be without endings sometimes.
But beginnings are entirely necessary. Good or bad, beginnings are always there; writers have to start somewhere.
I considered writing my first post on climaxes, or endings, just for the irony of it, but it wasn’t quite ironic enough for people to notice, so I decided against it.
I read three blogs dedicated only to writing that immediately come to mind, and probably five that have posts about writing well on them, but I don’t think that I’ve ever read a post on one of them about beginning a story. I have read posts about before you start writing, about assembling an outline, and about developing your characters before the start of the novel, but I do not recall ever reading one about the first few paragraphs of a novel. People often tend to ignore that beside the general, “Don’t begin a book on “a dark and stormy night,” or with your character waking up to the blaring of their alarm clock.”
Yet the beginning of a novel is important. Few agents or publishers will read past the first few paragraphs if they’re unimpressed by what they see there. Readers are more likely to continue, but once you make a first impression, it’s hard to change it.
The only question now being what makes a good beginning?
While there’s little on beginning novels, it’s not an entirely untouched subject, and there are some things that most writers know. The most obvious is to capture the attention of the reader. It’s exceptional advice… yet often, I think, writers take this a little bit too far.
There are many things that go into making a good beginning which won’t be touched here, but I think that the most important thing that I know is that people don’t care about your characters.
Often I’ve seen both works-in-progress and published novels where authors almost immediately put their characters in danger. They leave us no time to get attached to the characters before expecting us to care if they die at all. We’re not heartless readers, but, truly, characters die all the time. We have no reason to care if particular characters die unless we’ve been given a reason, and if the authors immediately expects us to care, it only irritates us.
In Bryan Davis’s Raising Dragons, the story begins not in the middle of a battle, but in a normal, everyday life… that isn’t so normal anymore. Bryan Davis immediately shows us what is normal as well as showing us what’s changing the normal of the main character. For another chapter, the effects of the change are seen, but we don’t actually find the real, life-or-death danger until we care about the characters.
In Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s, Heartless, it opens with a brother and a sister playing by the side of a river on the edge of a forest that no one enters. A normal thing, but with a touch of mystery, of fantasy that makes us wonder, who is going to stumble into the Wood…or who is going to come out? After the prologue, we enter a normal day, a few years later, which is soon changed by the appearance of something out of the ordinary, but not something setting a blade to the character’s neck. It keeps us reading, and then the threat enters. By that time, we have found that, at some point without noticing, we got attached to the characters.
My favorite books have started by showing what is normal for the characters and threatening it quietly. Starting with a direct threat to the characters doesn’t seem to work for me, because I have no interest in the characters, but if you show me something small that interests me enough to keep me reading until I’m attached to the characters, I consider it to be well done. Sometimes there is a prologue, or a brief scene beforehand that shows a threat, but the books that I’ve remembered have not started with a sword-fight or the character nearly dying.
By the time characters are being shoved into close brushes with death, the reader should realize that they like the characters. They should realize that they’re ready to clobber the author if the character dies.
Then we, the authors, know that we’ve crafted a good beginning.
What are your favorite beginnings to stories? Do you agree? Disagree? What have you found about writing beginnings that’s helped you? There’s a neat little “comment” box below!