Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How NOT to Begin

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.

Waking Up
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.

Flashing Back
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.


Danette said...

I recently submitted one of my Historical Fiction's to a publisher who wanted to read the whole manuscript, which was exciting for me--a wanna-be. However they did reject it in the end. One advice they gave me was to develop the ending more. SO we have the dilemma of getting them both right.

Anonymous said...

A question for Annette and a comment for Danette (you two could be sisters);

Annette wrote:

"Don't tell us that the character is creeped out. Show us with thoughts, emotions, actions, and other details."

How do you show thoughts and emotions? Don't you pretty much have to use some inner thought dialogue to do that. And if the answer to that is yes, then wouldn't it be better to show an active, action-packed opening that is really light on the thoughts and emotions, and save most of that content for later in the story once we care about the characters and engaged in the plot?


I've found (and I've been told a thousand times by authors I trust) that you can't write a really great opening, or that your opening is never complete, until you know your ending. Once you know your ending, that will influence your opening, allowing you to place bits and pieces of your ending in the beginning. If you approach your novel with that understanding and figure out how it is going to end, you essentially solve your need to reword the ending (we can hope) and you've also got yourselve a much better opening from the outset. Amazing.

Annette Lyon said...

Anon, There are ways of showing emotion beyond interior dialogue. If you don't show a character's reaction and personality even during an exciting action scene, your reader is unlikely to sympathize or care what's happening.

I've read a lot of agent blogs and seen agent reviews of first pages recently, and invariably, the most common complaint is telling, telling, telling--particularly about personality, thoughts, and emotions.

A good writer doesn't have to resort to interior monologue to get the job done.

Danette said...

Anonymous is your name David?

Anonymous said...

So Annette:

Are you suggesting that techinques like details of character, reaction to events, endearing dialouge provide enough emotion connection in an opening to do the trick and its better to save the unspoken, interior dialouge for later scenes? I think we may agree on saving the interior dialouge for later, but in its place, in order to develop that emotional connection with readers, what do you suggest?

Endearing actions?
Sentimental actions?
Funny or endearing dialouge?

Or are the implications of the event itself impactful enough for the reader to begin feeling for the character before they actually know them, essentially having the reader draw from their own personal experience to fill in the emotion the author chooses to leave untold, but implied by the actions and reactions of the characters.


I'll never tell.

Annette Lyon said...

Unless it's a James Bond movie, no, I don't think that the events themselves are enough.

Anonymous said...


What do you suggest for the emotional connection to the novel's opening? Do you have a formula? Mostly dialogue? A good dose of character interaction? Do you depend on a little humor in tense or even violent scenes? Do you have a gut feeling about what works? Do you just know it when you see it? And if you do know it when you see it, can you quantify it for us, maybe examine it and then tell us what your analysis reveals about the emotional content of a good opening?

Heather Moore said...

Good reminders. I've heard several agents list these exact ways of how not to start your book.

Danette--I've had the same advice on one of my books. I rewrote the ending and I was happier as well :)

Danette said...

All I had to do was expand a little more, and like you said, I was happier with it. Hopefully it does the trick for the next publishing house.

Charlie Moore said...

The best opening written for a book is I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents ... Hmmm.

Anonymous said...

I LOVE it when a book has a killer opening!

David G. Woolley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charlie Moore said...

It would appear Mr. Wooley's editorial and my response were deleted. If my post was out of line I offer a sincere apology. I meant no harm.

Charlie Moore

Precision Editing Group said...

Charlie--we were going to email you off-line, but couldn't find your email--you mystery man! We have a variety of readers, so we didn't want the discussion to get too religious. Although we love a good debate :) No worries. We always love your comments.

Charlie Moore said...

I appreciate your response. Yes, even though this appears to be mostly frequented by Latter Day Saints, I surmised the deletions were due to the religious tone. I was really just making a point, but chose my words poorly.

Interesting comment about the mystery man, yet I am far from mysterious. If I can talk my wife into it, we may attend the Whitney awards and perhaps I can meet a few of you. That would be nice. Incidently, my wife just says I'm weird. My kids, too.

I would like to post one more opening paragraph. This one is published on Amazon Shorts by Joshua Berry. My pen name.

Tiny beads of water formed before my eyes. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of these beads of moisture came together in the early morning to greet Rainbow Ron and me. The break of morning was barely upon us. Fog, brought on by the current inversion, nestled against the river bank. Little bumps on my arms told of a brisk morning chill. Rainbow Ron and I walked along the bank noticing none of it. We were about to enjoy another day of fly fishing on the Madison River.

I'm simply a recreational writer who sends the occasional manuscript in. I truly appreciate and use the advice that comes from forums/blogs like this one.

Charlie Moore
terry_chas at hotmail dot com

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

Dang. I need to go rewrite my opening scene now...

Heh...great advice!