Beginnings 101

Beginnings are hard. People sometimes redo their intros 70 times! After all, do we start with the inciting incident? What IS an inciting incident?! Do we start with a funeral opening even though half the writing world would tell us not to? Do we start with something mundane and everyday? Do we start with the character in a big action scene, sword fighting to save the chest of jewels pirates are trying to steal from the sultan?

The one and only answer is: You start where the story starts.

And where is that? It’s the latest possible point you can start the story without people being lost, before everything starts falling apart or changing.

Think about it. Harry Potter starts with old Harry getting dumped at the piglet’s house. That second chapter is perfectly fine, but what the first chapter does is set up all the mystic and what not that’s going to surround Harry when he gets to Hogwarts. Without that first chapter, we’d get to the train station and see people freaking out over Harry and not understand what the big deal is, after all, they are all wizards. Being a wizard in Hogwarts isn’t something to gawk at. But thanks to that first chapter, we understand why he’s being ogled like that. He’s the BOY WHO LIVED! What that means early on isn’t necessarily important, but what it does is set up the intrigue that’s to follow.

As a professional at starting off on the wrong foot, here are some ways I’ve learned to tell if my intro is in the wrong place:

Too early a start:
You can cut out the first several pages and not be missing anything substantial whatsoever. Like if you start with your MC prom dress shopping and the prom is not important or worse, there isn’t even a prom in the story! Yeah, you can (and should) lose that. In fact, only keep it if prom dress shopping is when your character realizes that some seedy character is following her around the mall!

The inciting incident (the thing that changes your protagonist’s life and sets the event of the main plot in motion) is still several chapters away. Like, really, if you can’t get to the inciting incident faster than that, you have a problem. The inciting incident in Harry Potter actually happens before the story even starts!

Too late a start:
The inciting incident is on page one. And this is a problem because really, folks, you gotta give people a reason to care. This is why funeral openings are so tricky. We just met this person. Why should we care? Imagine if Harry found out he was a wizard on page one, like where’s the fun in that? Finding out he gets to go to Hogwarts (a boarding school, which means he’ll be away from home) after seeing the horrible state his life is in? You’re SO happy for him!

You find yourself scrambling around with a fistful of backstory and nowhere to put it. What if we started Harry Potter off at Hogwarts? You’d be lost, right? Who is this kid? What is Hogwarts? Imagine starting Spiderman’s story a week after the radioactive bite. You’d have to stop everything and explain yourself. Where it happened. How he transitioned. Was he scared? Was it painful? How did it even happen? You get my point.

Here are some examples of good openings:

In my favoritest book ever, THE FORBIDDEN GAME by LJ Smith, it starts off with Jenny the protagonist looking for a board game, a sophisticated, sexy, scary board game for her friends to play at a birthday party. The entire series revolves around the game she picks up, so yeah, best opening ever.

CON AIR starts off with Nick Cage’s character getting in a fight and going to prison. We see that he’s an honest man who made a mistake, and we start to care about him before he’s put on a plane with a bunch of psychopaths. Then we worry! Because we care.

HUNGER GAMES starts off with Katniss comforting her sister (showing how these people are effected by the Games), and then going off and hunting some animal because it shows how skilled with a bow she is, which, of course, comes into play later.

Here are some examples of bad openings:

I love this book, but HANNAH by Kathryn Lasky starts off with this budding mermaid going to off to be a maid in like Nebraska or something, and the girl stays at the house entirely too long. She gets super sick from being away from the water and is moved back to Boston where the rest of the story takes place. I know, I know, it’s showing what being away from the ocean is doing to her, but trust me, it lasted way too long and we got introduced to about 20 characters that we NEVER see again.

THE HOST (the movie) starts off with this random girl (Melanie) getting hostile with a bunch of seemingly harmless aliens. Then she tries to kill herself by throwing herself out of a high up glass window. No. This was awful. We don’t know this girl. We don’t care. And it really seems like she’s overreacting a great deal, even with the verbal prologue at the very beginning.

THE HOST (the book), skipping the prologue, starts off with the alien host (named Wanderer) waking up and trying to get a feel for her new body. Then the memories of Melanie come to the alien because that’s how we’re going to find out about Melanie and get to know her, through internal dialogue and memories, filtered through the eyes and “brain” of Wanderer. This is horribly confusing, even knowing from the get go what was going on.

Beginnings are hard. And tone is important. I once had a story that started innocently enough. A birthday party! And then everyone, EVERYONE was slaughtered! (Let’s just ignore what a psychiatrist would say about that at the moment.) This actually wouldn’t have been a problem if it was that kind of book, but no one died in literally, the ENTIRE rest of the story. So, starting off with people dying, when no one else dies? Not good. Because it sets a tone of bloodshed. And this is either going to unnecessarily turn people off or horribly disappoint people looking for a dark, disturbing read that will keep them from sleeping right for a week. (Hey, some people like that!)

In the good examples, THE FORBIDDEN GAME gives you chills down your back from the get go. Because of this, we can expect a chilling read, and it definitely delivers! CON AIR gives you a sense of action and redemption. HUNGER GAMES gives you a since of oppression and uneasiness. These are great openings because they foreshadow a bit of what’s to come. In THE FORBIDDEN GAME, Jenny is being followed from the very first page, and hello, symmetry! She’s being chased throughout the entire series. In HUNGER GAMES people start pushing back against their oppressors. It’s the perfect setup.

In the bad examples, HANNAH is leading me to believe that there will be a loT of exposition and unnecessary stuff in the story, and this isn’t the case at all! THE HOST sets the stage for something disjointed, melodramatic, and confusing in both mediums, and while it is filled with plot holes, the concept itself actually makes a lot of sense and isn’t melodramatic at all. It’s one of those books/movies that actually really does get better. That’s why those are bad openings. Not only do they turn less patient people away (who in turn miss out on something interesting), they don’t accurately represent the story to come. THE HOST movie tries to set it up like an action thriller and it’s way more psychological in nature. (Outside of the opening, there is very, very, very little action.)

However, don’t stress yourself over the opening. The more you write, the easier it gets to pinpoint where you should start, and when you should make some adjustments to where you did start. We can learn a lot about beginnings (and endings) from other books and movies, yes? ^_^

20 Responses to Beginnings 101

  1. And the final thing to remember is that it’s totally subjective and dependent on genre. I’ve read some genres where it’s expected that there be a slow, easy build. They usually drive me crazy, but that’s the way they work, and maybe I should stop reading them if it bothers me. Personally, I didn’t have any problems with how the host opened. We hand an intriguing and unique perspective to get into, and it was like presenting a whole new world within the world we occupy. The basic rules had to be established before the action started. (Besides, the MC was so laid back, it wouldn’t have made sense for her world to be in total turmoil at the beginning.)

    • I actually prefer slow builds. I think I call them slow burns. 🙂 You don’t know you’re in boiling water until it’s too late! My problem with The Host is that it was disjointed and confusing at the beginning. But the movie is mostly what I’m talking about. It’s a quieter read, but the movie tried to paint it as this wild, high action thing and it’s not. It’s one of the reasons I think it didn’t do as well in the box office as it could have, if it had slightly better direction.

      • I actually was really surprised about the movie. There was enough action in the book to tighten it up into a box office hit, but I think that one fell flat on its face in the scripting. That, or you’re right, they needed to depict it as a slower story, more romantically focused.

        • They definitely should have done something different. I ended up liking it, but I’m glad I watched the movie first or I’m pretty sure I would have hated it. I also wouldn’t have tried picking up the book again.

  2. Beginnings are my nemesis. With the exception of my opening sentence (which I love), I pretty much hate the first 13 pages of my novel. It’s just so…ugh…exposition-y and contrived. Which is a shame because the book really gets interesting by page 14 (I’m just hoping readers can hang in there that long, which is never a good sign as a writer!). I’ve tried to change my beginning a bazillion times, but I can’t “see” the chapter anymore.

    After reading this post, I’m going to read the chapter again when I get a chance and see if I can start the story later. Cross your fingers for me.

    Oh, and I love love LOVE The Host (the book, not the movie). I was so intrigued by Wanderer and the fact that the story was being told from the PoV of the invading species (quite unique!) that I barely noticed the bad start. And then later…to have dual-narration from one character…oh my gosh, it was brilliant. It wasn’t until everyone else in the world told me how confusing and slow the beginning was that I saw its flaws. I guess the moral of the story is: Some of your more dedicated/committed readers might plow through a choppy beginning, but why push your luck?

    • Yeah, I couldn’t get The Host read until after I watched the movie and knew what was going on. But everyone was right, it did get so much better, and I was glad I made it through the rumbly bits. I ended up really liking Wanderer and the world Stephanie created. It was kind of awesome.

      You’re so right though, why push our luck. I know sometimes we can’t see the flaws in stuff until we scrutinize it. Stephanie could get away with it because of Twilight and because she had a super unique story to tell, but people like me with less unique angles and even less clout, I can’t risk it, especially when the saggy bits are staring me in the eyeball. I hate to redo stuff in my story. Even when I know something is dragging, I try really hard to move on, but I just can’t give myself a pass. It disturbs my sleep. Lol!

      Definitely crossing fingers for you! I never ever want people to have to revisit the same chapters over and over again, but it saw you see it – it’s staring at you now. O.O

  3. Grr. For all my works ever i’ve had hella trouble starting them. But it does get easier, esp. when you know what you want.

  4. Ughhh beginnings are so tough! I read this and my thoughts ran to my WIP. I wonder where people pick up the right pens to write beginnings. But thanks for sharing your views on what makes a beginning work for you!

    • I wonder if it’s easy for anyone! There seems to be a consensus though that knowing the ending is really helpful in figuring out the right place to start. I hope yours is squared away. 🙂

    • It really is! Sometimes I watch movies or read something and think, “I could have used more information before all the crazy happened,” or “I could have done without the first 20 minutes or first 3 chapters,” and that is always extremely helpful.

  5. Your post is so true! I remember reading Ghost Bride by debut author Yangsze Choo. She had a great opening, but it didn’t give me what I expected out if the book (even though I thought it was a good story). Your post also explains the dreaded backstory. If you (writer) have to go back 50 years to tell us something in the middle of the story, you probably started to late. This was a great post!

    • Thank you! ^_^
      It’s so hard to strike that balance between too early, too late, tempering expectations, and setting the right tone, but I really believe it’s worth the effort, because when authors have nail it, it gives us that much more enjoyment out of the book.

Hi! ^_^