Writing Good Beginnings

We’ve heard that an individual forms his or her impression of someone new within mere seconds of introduction…..  It is the same for our readers.  Within the first paragraph or first page of our story, the reader forms her opinion, deciding at once whether or  not our story is worth more of her time.

Last month I wrote about the importance of endings, but it is not possible to reach, or write a good ending without writing a good beginning to send the reader off on her journey, excited and eager for adventure.   By turning the first lines of our narrative into an invitation the reader can not refuse, the writer reels in her reader like a fish on a hook.  Hence, the term to “hook the reader”, or to wet the appetite of the audience enough to make them want more.

Some ways to write good beginnings include: 

Describe the setting so the reader can identify with her surroundings.

Ask a question, or leave out a piece of information,  to make the reader wonder.

Start with a conflict.

Start in the middle of some kind of action  (in media res) and work your way backward.

Start with background information.

Have the protagonist introduce herself in an interesting manner to allow for the reader to connect with her, or to develop some kind of emotional relationship with her.

The beginning of the story sets the tone for what is to come, just as we like to believe the beginning of each new year allows us to begin with a fresh start. As an important part of our story, (many would argue that it is the most important part), the beginning should act as a foundation, like the foundation upon which our home is built.  It is almost a separate entity, while still a part of the whole. The beginning is the place where our readers are getting to know the characters, the setting, the theme and the plot, like arriving guests in our foyer where they receive their first glimpse of the other party attendees, or gain a sense of the environment into which they’ve been welcomed. 

However, while it is important to establish these important criteria early, the writer must be leery to avoid over-doing it, to walk a fine line.  To this point, Cris Freese, a technical writer, professional book editor, literary intern and former managing editor of Writers Digest Books points out that many times opening scenes fail because the writer tries to tell too much about the story too soon;   “what readers need to know to read the story is not what writers needed to know to write it.”  Freese continues to say that writers explore their characters’ voices and histories, the setting’s idiosyncrasies, the plot’s twists and turns and detours and dead ends, the themes’ nuances and expressions before writing the opening scenes.  He continues to explain that writers should think on paper there, in the beginning, “stretching” their way into the story and that “stretching is a crucial part of the writing process, but just as stretching before you run is paramount, it’s not part of the run itself. It’s preparation.”

What Freese is trying to say is that while writers need to draw in their readers, they should remain mindful to leave out the parts of the beginning that obscure the actual action, to allow the reader to arrive at the  “big story idea” sooner, like cutting off the fat to get to the meat.  While the writer must know before hand those parts, he does not necessarily need to write it all out in his beginning.  Provide just enough without filling in too many blanks too soon. 

One way to do this might be for the writer to  start the story in media res, or in the middle of the action as a way to plop the reader directly into the scene, and then more of the exposition and detailed setting can be filled in gradually, afterward, once the reader IS, indeed, hooked.

Another important task to remember, when writing a good beginning, is to include an “inciting incident”, or  an event that will disrupt the protagonist’s every day existence, gradually leading her away from the beginning and into the middle, toward the “doorway of no return”, or the first plot point.  This is where the reader becomes fully invested in the journey. 

Writing a good beginning is like knocking over the first domino from which the remaining dominos are able to fall neatly into place, like connecting the dots- one by one,  or gradually filling in the blanks. 

Moreover, the beginning should establish the point of view, whether it is first person ( “ I “ am telling the story), omniscient third person, as if it is a God-like narrator (OM)  telling the story from all points of view- getting into everyone’s heads, third person limited (he or she ) or the less traveled POV: 2nd person; “you take a left turn, you add two cups of milk…”  .  Additionally, as stated earlier, the beginning should introduce the protagonist and her conflict or quest to the audience, as well as to briefly describe the setting of the story.

Once this first domino is set up correctly, the connecting theme, plot and everything else in line should slide neatly into place.  It may sound contradictory and challenging, but it is in finding the right balance and selecting the most appropriate opening for your story that makes a truly good beginning.  

In one of the most famous first lines of any novel;  A Tale of Two Cities, written by Charles Dickens in 1859, the reader immediately gets a sense of where the novel is headed, even before we meet the main characters: 

     It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Opposing threads of duality and paradoxical elements of society and the danger of mob rule forge their way through the story, tied together in an unending struggle that reflects  a time of enlightenment and hope, while simultaneously mirroring the darkness of despair on the other side. Tensions between family and love, hatred and oppression, and chaos and order, battle one another within dualistic characters on both sides of the channel. Thriving within the two cities of London and Paris, dwells contrast and similarity, portrayed by the characters who reside there. This is evident within the very first paragraph, revealing what is yet to come.  Not too overdone, yet just enough to hook the reader and provide a clear view of what lays ahead.

Like the sun rising over the horizon at the start of each day, gifting the world with fresh aspirations of the possibilities ahead, writing good beginnings gives rise to the hope for and anticipation of what rests between the first page and the last.  Like the moments of our lives, from our first breaths to our last, it is the beginning we write that launches us forward.  Like the preface that lays out the blue print of our time on this earth, the beginning we write sets each of us up for our destinies.  It is easy to write a good beginning when we do not have a map to which we are committed to follow, because we can make up what we want as we go, but it is the challenge of writing good beginnings, placing the right words on a blank page,  starting with a clean slate, when we are serious, honest, creative and determined, that distinguishes us as human beings, and as writers.

It is from setting up the first domino, from making the decision as to who we are and who we want to become, and where we, as writers decide we want our stories to go, and who we want our protagonists to be, and what we want our characters to show our readers, that we are able to most affect the next domino in line, and from which each domino thereafter, will gradually fall neatly into place.

The writer can always edit the first draft of his beginning, but it is in his best effort, with honesty, clarity, and originality, and from the utilization of the tools in his tool box, that he writes his best final draft!  No publisher, nor editor, nor agent, nor teacher, nor principal, nor judge, nor parent, nor boss has the power to change the beginning each one of us writes.  It is up to us as writers, readers or individuals in general to decide on how or if we want to write our own good  beginnings that will launch us off toward our futures, and the endings we will eventually write later on down the road.  No excuses, no lies,  no punishments, nor judgments, nor anything or anyone else can alter the beginnings we write. 

Only the author of his own story can write or re-draft his own good beginning.

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