Problematic beginnings

Last night, I stayed up way too late pretending that I was rocking the baby to sleep when, in reality, I was furiously rewriting the beginning of one of my stories on my cell phone. (Not the most efficient way to write, but when you have one free hand and a sleeping child on your chest, you make do.) This is the fourth or fifth beginning to this particular project, and it’s the first time that it’s felt right.

We all know that beginnings are important–they grab the reader, slice into the meat of your story, and set the tone for the whole novel. So let’s talk a little about how beginnings go wrong and how to fix them.

1. Nothing happens. This is, sadly, the most common and most unfortunate error in kicking off a book. The character wakes up, brushes her teeth, and heads off to school, where she attends three classes before, twenty pages in, AN ASTEROID CRASHES INTO EARTH AND TRANSFORMS HER ENTIRE SCHOOL INTO RADIOACTIVE MUTANTS.

Skip the twenty pages of tooth-brushing and start with the asteroid.

2. Info duuuuuuump. How many times have you gotten through the first paragraph of a story and needed to come up for air? “Okay, there’s a girl, and she’s got seven siblings with crazy unpronounceable names, and those are all their ages, and they live in a magical kingdom underwater that uses fish to bring fresh air down from the surface only the fish are dying and by the way civil war and social rankings and whaaaaa . . .”

We don’t need (or want!) to know the ENTIRE story in one page up front. Pick one important plot point and introduce it (NOT explaining in detail) throughout the first scene. Pull out your outline and figure out how to let the information reveal itself naturally.

3. Starting event isn’t pertinent to the main plot. Maybe you’ve got a great action scene written that takes place during your character’s jujitsu tournament, but if it’s there just for the sake of the action and doesn’t advance the plot or character development, I don’t want to see it. Make sure you springboard your readers into what your book is really about, or they’ll feel cheated.

4. Inconsistent tone. If your book is lighthearted, start out lighthearted! If it’s serious, set the stage! Don’t have a page of doom and gloom and then turn around and start cracking jokes.

Now, be careful with this. Remember that I’m talking about TONE, not PLOT. All plots are going to have some element of tension and danger to them–that’s what drives the story. But all narrators are going to relay that tension in a different way. Make sure your narrator is consistent.

What are some problems you’ve run into with a story’s beginning?

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1 Comment

  1. Beginnings can be tricky. I’ve got a book where I’ve switched Chap 1 (introduces main supporting character) and Chap 2 (introduces main protagonist) back and forth, trying to figure out which works better, and finally, after so many flip-flops, I think I need to start with option 3: a flashback

    Maybe. That book’s on hold for a while. Otherwise, I think I can check off #1, #3, and #4.

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