Monday, January 17, 2011

What beginnings accomplish

It's probably safe to say the most revised part of most manuscripts is the beginning. The first page, first ten pages, first twenty...

Of course, a beginning isn't any more or less important than the middle or ending of your book, but it is where someone will determine whether they even want to get to the middle or end. Your opening gives us our first look into your main character, helps set the tone of the book.

All openings should accomplish two things:

1. Introduce your main character in an appealing way. This person needs to catch our attention. We need to sympathize with them on some level, need to connect to them, or - at the least - we need to think they're weird enough that we want to learn more. Readers are investing their precious time to read your book. Make it worth their while.

2. Set the scene for what's to come. You aren't going to find a science textbook opening up with a chapter on history, right? The same goes for fiction. If your book is a slow, fluid and mellow romance, don't start it with a car chase flying through L.A. Your opening scenes need to give readers an expectation of what they're getting into. Huge, melodramatic openings can be hard to follow.

Both of these lead to one main point you want your opening to accomplish: Maintain the reader's interest.

Your writing needs to be smooth, polished, fluid. Whatever scene you give us needs to not only catch our interest, but hold it. This does not need to be done by giving us that aforementioned car chase. Character interaction, tension, suspense, emotion, peril* - these are all things that will catch a reader's attention.

(*when I say 'peril,' I mean actual peril. Don't have your character hanging off a cliff, barely holding on, and reveal a few pages later that it was a dream.)

In my experience with my own writing, I redo openings so many times because I am still getting a feel for my characters. All that crummy info-dump and drivel in my first few pages I end up trimming and revising? Is because these characters are often new to me and I'm figuring them out by writing. I've noticed my books need less revision toward the end. I would say 70% of all my trimming/cutting happens within the first half.

Start your story where it starts.

Don't bog us down with background information. Your character should be moving, doing something. We don't need to see an ordinary day in your character's life. Don't start with Sally staring in the mirror and admiring her raven-colored hair, putting on her makeup, thinking to herself how she wants Johnny to ask her to the school dance while she eats breakfast. Instead, have her running into Johnny in the hall, have him asking her to that dance. Start with a bang. Start right at the edge of where things change.

The Writer's Digest book on Plot words it perfectly:

Don't tell how the protagonist decided to go out and buy fireworks, how much they cost, how he brought them home, how he stored them, what his wife said. Begin when the fuse is lit and the reader sees a bang coming any minute.

Homework exercise!
Take your opening pages (one, two, the first chapter, however many) and place every single sentence on its own line to separate it from everything else. Now, go through each of these lines, one at a time and ask yourself these questions:

1. Does this show something about the main character that the reader should know right away, or does it advance the story?

2. Is this background information? If so, is it needed right this second or can it be woven in later when the reader is emotionally invested enough to care?

3. Will the reader find this information interesting and engaging?

4. Am I setting a tone for what's to come?

Don't expect that your opening (or any part of your manuscript) will be perfect the first go around. Write it. Get it all out. Then go back and look at what needs to be fixed.

Let me know if you try this and what you find out about your own openings!

EDIT: Early morning edit! Sharon has up a chance to get a guest-spot on the blog by helping out flood victims in Australia. See her post and others here.


  1. Great advice, and SO true! I probably rewrote my intro at least ten times. It's hard to nail.
    Oh, and I cannot stand when people start the story with a dream (unless maybe it's a real flashback? idk)! It's like a broken promise or a mean joke.

  2. Wow. Great advice, Kelley Y. Beginnings are so hard. I always struggle with where to start mine.

  3. Lol, my WIP starts with MC's best friend hanging off a cliff - but it's no dream.

  4. I had the hardest time with the beginning of my WIP--I've had about 10 completely different versions. And yes, some of that was not getting the start point right. I think I've got it down now, but I even tried to shove backstory into my query. Bad writer!

    And BTW, I gave YAtopia a Stylish Blogger Award, stop by and get your button

  5. Thanks, girls! I'm half and half. Sometimes I know exactly the right spot to start something, sometimes I tear my hair out writing and rewriting to get it right. And even if I think I got it right the first time, I finish the MS and realize I need to redo the beginning again, anyway.

    Angelica, I'm contemplating covering queries and what info should be included in those for my next post. They're definitely tricky, and so many agents enjoy so many different things it's hard to know what might interest one and bore another.

    And thank you so much for the award!!!

  6. I usually write my opening as it pops into my head, but then revisit it once I'm finished writing, and completely overhaul it. But I can't to the overhaul until I'm finished the book (crazy writer quirks!) Great post!

  7. Brilliant pointers- I must give them a go and see how I fare!

  8. Leigh, I've heard of some people waiting to write their first chapter until they're done with the book to ensure any little relevant details don't go unmissed in those first few pages!

    Jen, thank you, and I hope it helps you out! :)

  9. Yeah. I've cut whole chapters at the beginnings. WHOLE CHAPTERS, just so the story starts where it should.