by Annette Lyon
Okay, okay, I might not be the best person to discuss the delicate art of beginnings, because I always struggle with where and how to launch my books. Inevitably, I end up writing several beginnings before I land on one I like and that I feel works.
But my trouble is generally deciding which moment of perhaps five possibilities is the right one to begin with.
I do know enough to always, always avoid the following ways of killing your story before it has a chance to get off the ground.
It's morning, the sun streams through the window, and your character wakes up.
Where's the action? Where's the dialogue, the conflict, the story?
Your story should begin in medias res, "in the middle of things." In other words, in the middle of action and conflict. Showing a character waking up and brushing their hair in the morning is almost as far away from action and conflict as you could get, short of opening with a scene of a sloth sleeping in a tree.
Wait, you say. We'll have action in a dream sequence, and then the character can wake up. That method usually backfires. If you've managed to get your reader engaged in the dream and its conflict, then they'll feel cheated when they find out it wasn't real.
Worse, you're basically creating two beginnings, because once the dream is over, you still have to start the real story.
You know this one: a character looks out a window, observes a sunset/sunrise, notes the darkening clouds, hears a familiar song, or has some other emotional trigger and is suddenly transported back in time.
Then the reader gets a massive info-dump flashback.
The trouble here is two-fold: First (you guessed it), we're back to having little-to-no action. We're not starting in medias res.
Second, you're not trusting yourself or the reader. Trust yourself enough to know that you can dole the back story well--and in small pieces--later on. Hold off until the main story is set up and on its way. Then and only then drop a line here and there to show back story.
Also, trust that your reader is smart enough to follow the main story without needing every single detail of what happened in your character's life before now.
Tell, Tell, Tell
Those opening sentences are crucial for hooking an agent, editor, or reader. That means you have to get the reader inside the scene, feeling, sensing, and experiencing it right with the character.
Don't be so worried about getting to the exciting parts that you end up telling the scene, skipping over the chance to show what's happening.
Don't tell us that the character is creeped out. Show us with thoughts, emotions, actions, and other details.
Don't use bland adjectives to tell us what the setting is like (it's an old, rundown house). Instead show details that make the setting pop (the house has peeling paint, broken windows, and a sagging porch).
Start too Late
While you do need to begin with action and conflict, sometimes the place to begin isn't with the biggest conflict.
For example, The Wizard of Oz wouldn't be nearly as engaging if we entered the story after Dorothy ended up in Oz. The big problem? We wouldn't care about Dorothy. She's a girl from a house that blew in on a tornado. So what?
We needed to see her struggles and personality back home so that when the crisis arrived, we could empathize with her.
The movie (rightly) begins with a smaller but relevant conflict: Dorothy tries to run away from home with her dog, Toto. That's enough conflict to get the audience engaged long enough for the major conflict to show up. In this case, that big conflict is a foil to the earlier one: now Dorothy wants nothing more than to go home.
You can't expect a reader to sympathize and connect to a character's plight until they've walked a few pages in their shoes. Having a page one where a character burst into tears, screaming how unfair life is pretty meaningless unless the reader has spent enough time with the character to care.
This is surely why Shakespeare included a brief scene with two very minor characters, a mother and son, in his play Macbeth. The mother and son never show up again.
Why did he bother adding the scene? Because we find out later that they are killed. The audience has a bond of sorts with the mother and son, making for a much more heart-wrenching murder than hearing about a nameless, faceless mother and son would be.
Start with action and conflict, but not so late into the story that the reader is spinning and disoriented. And be sure to connect us to your characters before they're thrown into the fire.
Avoiding these pitfalls certainly won't guarantee a great opening (my constant revisions are proof of that), but they will increase your chances of creating a great first chapter that readers won't be able to put down.