Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Beginnings

How many of us have read a book that started right in the middle of the action and ended up thinking ...

Huh?

Beginnings are hard. You have to introduce the character, the problem and sometimes the villain. It's hard to know where to start. We've all heard the cliche ways of course...

*A character waking up in the morning.
*Someone being chased.
*Someone running through a forest.
*A description of the weather.
*A character describing him or herself in the mirror.
*The MC's view on some emotion or concept. Like love or something.
*The MC getting ready for work or school.

And my least favorite:

*An awesome or exciting scene that turns out to be a dream.

So, how do we make an opening scene different?

I think it has a lot to do with the character in general. For me, I like to get to know the character a little before they dive into some chase scene or something. Get to know their personality. Even if it's only a few paragraphs. How they look at the world. A little dialogue can tell a lot about a person. You can do so much with just a few sentences.

So, how do you guys start a book? How do you figure out what works for an opening scene and what doesn't? I sometimes struggle with the first scene. I tend to do better at endings. :) And to make myself clear, there is nothing wrong with starting your book with some of the scenes I mentioned above. I was only saying they are used a lot. It's okay if you have a scene like that in your book. :)

28 comments:

J. A. Bennett said...

I actually like to jump right into the action. For me it's best to get to know my character when I see how they handle the situation. I HATE the dream thing though.

Ruth Josse said...

That picture startled me. Haha!

I'm not great at beginnings either, but I've heard a great place to start is the day something is different. What event changed your character's world and is the reason you are telling their story? You can also learn a lot about a character right away from how they react to that event.

Chantele Sedgwick said...

@J. A. Bennett I agree. I guess it depends on the book for me. And the character! :)

Chantele Sedgwick said...

@Ruth Josse I know, right!? LOL The picture is pretty creepy! And I agree. I do like the action happening pretty early on. Just not right when the book starts. Like the first sentence. ;)

Stephanie McGee said...

You have to have enough set up to justify the action, in my opinion. I'll actually be blogging about this later this week.

Angie Cothran said...

LOL! I open my story with a chase scene in a forest...ha ha ha! I had no idea that was a cliche. After 15+ alpha and beta readings no one told me that. Maybe I pull it off :) I can only hope...right? You gave me lots to think about.

Chantele Sedgwick said...

@Stephanie McGeeI agree! :) Can't wait to see your post!
@Angie Cothran I don't think it's a bad thing to open a book like that! :) I swear I'll still love you! LOL :D And I'm sure your story works. I haven't read a book with a chase scene through a forest for a long time. I wouldn't worry about it. ;)

Jenny S. Morris said...

With one of my books, I changed the beginning becuase one of my readers started asking a lot of questions after they read the first chapter. So, I realized I need a few pages to answer those questions. It really helped set the tone for the book.

Meredith said...

Ugh, beginnings are definitely hard! I like to get into my character's voice a little before jumping right into the action. Just to ground the reader.

S.P. Bowers said...

You should begin with the problem that is solved at the end. Sometimes I need to write the whole book and know what it's about before I know where to begin.

The last book of my trilogy will start with a funeral. I've seen that done before once or twice and hope it doesn't end up on "the list"

Sarah Pearson said...

I never start in the write place. It takes a good few chapters to work out what that is :-)

Jessie Humphries said...

Erggg...yes beginnings are hard. And we hear about these cliche beginnings all the time. So I know how NOT to start...but where is the instruction manual on HOW to start. I loved the first page panel at Storymakers this year for this reason.

Patti said...

It's a hard balancing act because you don't want to throw the reader into so much action that they wind up confused. I struggle with beginnings as well. That's why I've written mine over and over again.

E.R. King said...

I agree that I have to know a character somewhat before the conflict begins. Otherwise I don't care what happens to him.

1000th.monkey said...

I like to look at the beginning of a story like a piece of flash fiction... how much of the story can you tell in 200-250 words, but with a twist/hook right at the end.

...and by that, I don't mean an info-dump... what I mean is, stripping away the story and the main character(s) until what you have left is the inciting incident and the character(s) emotional state.

For example, in a new story I'm working on (where I haven't edited the beginning yet), the main character is being bullied, he can't speak (has lost his voice due to emotional trauma) and he has 2 *invisible friends* who no one else can see/hear. The story is about him gaining back his voice and figuring out who the invisible friends are.

Essentially, when I have it edited correctly, in the first 200-250 words, I want it to be clear he's being bullied, that he can't speak (the main reason for the bullying) and the *hook* in the last line will reveal that the girl speaking/standing at his side can't be seen by any of the other kids in the room.

That's what I mean by boiling it down...

does that make sense?

Jennifer Groepl said...

I agree that beginnings provide a challenge.

One of my favorite books, Thirteen Reasons Why, started off with a kid in the post office with a box of cassette tapes. It's not exciting and only slightly intriguing, but it works because it's not contrived. That's where it needs to begin. The tapes change his life, but getting the tapes doesn't become exciting for the reader until we realize that later. Didn't stop the book from being a phenomenal bestseller with an unknown author.

In Gone With the Wind, the first two chapters establish Scarlet as a character before the inciting events at the Wilkes' picnic. Not super exciting, but necessary to establish who she is (before things change) and why we should care about what happens to her.

I agree with others that the true beginning is often not clear to the writer until the story is done and you realize the exact moment where it NEEDS to begin.

The funny thing for me, is that I always write my introductions in non-fictional works LAST. I'm just recently realizing I need to do the same in my fiction writing.

Great post!

Michelle Merrill said...

I love that picture! And you know, I have the hardest time with beginnings. Endings are so much easier.

*off to fix the beginning of my book for the bazillionth time!

Abby said...

From what I gathered at the writers conference, they want to know about the character. Of course you want it to be catchy too. Beginning scenes are so tricky. Luckily I have great crit friends to help me through it! ;)

elizabethreinhardt said...

I don't mind action at all, but I hate being confused about who is who and what they're doing/where they are/why they're together! I love character building in any book. I love characters you can fall deeply in love with, more than plot lines or settings! So I like the character to smack me upside the head...in a good way!

J said...

Beginnings are the worst! I try to start between major events. Something big has just happened to the character, and they're reacting to that, but by the end of the first chapter, something even bigger is coming. It's worked well so far...

Kelly Bryson said...

Beginnings are so hard, but it's also fun (unless it's really really frustrating) to write out lots of different options. So I've heard. In my first book, I was learning how to engage without overwhelming and it took a LOT of feedback from readers to know I'd done a passable job. Thanks Chantele!

Kristin Baker Przybyla said...

I love that picture, because it's been my default expression for the past month or so! On the topic of beginnings, I'm having a butt of a time rewriting my own. Last week my writers' group told me I could get into the action even sooner, although the conflict starts by the second page.

I've been trying to get rid of my cliched beginning: My MC is standing at the edge of a forest, debating whether she's going to walk home that way or not. And yeah, she ends up running through the forest by the second page. Ugh, I'm so confused...

Nicole said...

I like to use a little action and a lot of intrigue to draw the reader in. I try to give enough background that it's not action-without-context, which can be hard to follow.

Tracy Z. said...

I agree with Ruth, about starting the day something changes. The thing that changes is usually the first piece of the story I come up with and I plan the rest of the story around that event.

LynNerd said...

I agree that writing the beginning of the book is the hardest part. Everything hinges on the hook. It has to work. I find that I rewrite those first crucial pages over and over and over, at least 20 times or more.

I think the main thing is to get something on paper. Half the time I end up throwing away the first three to five pages because the story doesn't really start until after that, but it seems to be part of the process I go through in discovering what my real hook is. I have trouble with endings, too. But getting to the ending is a great feeling, even if I have to rewrite it over and over and over!

Jolene Perry said...

OH NO!!! You've just ruined my next 8 books!!!!!!!

KIDDING!!

I have THREE books that start just before people go to bed - how's THAT for weird??

And I HATE, HATE, HATE being cheated by the character waking up on page two or three. Annoys the CRAP out of me.

I think I'm okay. The only one I SORT of started that way was Joy - the emotion thing - Someone once told me that happiness is fleeting, but joy sticks with you, holds onto you, and fills you up. The fact that my name is Joy is sort of a lesson in irony.

But that's IT, I swear, and THEN I jump into the action, lol.

Beginnings are SO hard. I end up taking off a chapter or two off the beginning every once in a while. I'm MORE guilty of that than the "huh??" beginning.

But yeah . . . beginnings are HARD for me. It's admittedly the place I struggle most.

Cally Jackson said...

Judging by the comments, this is obviously a topic close to the heart of many a writer!

My current WiP starts the day BEFORE everything changes, but my main characters are in full anticipation of the change ahead, so hopefully that doesn't mean I've started too early. I don't think it does, but I'll be interested to see what my beta readers say. :-)

Carolyn Abiad said...

I think of the opening scene as a door that's only open enough to make me curious about what's on the other side. My favorites convey a feeling, but not the reason for the feeling.