This may seem incredibly obvious (the beginning, duh), but it can actually be a lot trickier than you might expect. I came to grasp this when I recently had to throw out 20k words of a manuscript because it just wasn’t working. I agonized for a while over why this was the case, and made repeated, increasingly desperate attempts to salvage it, but I knew in my guts that I had some major problems. See, I had this idea that I would use alternating chapters, switching from present to past, to tell the love story of Darius and Nazafareen in The Midnight Sea. It would start in the middle of some swash-buckling action and then go back and explain how they got there.
Yes, it is entirely possible to pull this off—but I wasn’t. I had a big, complicated fantasy world and there was just too much backstory necessary to understand it. Slamming the brakes on the action every other chapter to talk about stuff that had already happened is extremely risky. Readers can get angry and frustrated and bored, which is not what we’re looking for. So I hemmed and hawed and tinkered and rearranged and sought writing advice from the internet and finally, the answer dawned. There was only one way out of this mess.
Just start the damn story from the real beginning, where it needed to start.
And voila, the words started to flow and all was right in the world again. I went back to the point where Nazafareen first joined the Water Dogs, and let the reader discover what daevas were and how the empire worked and what the Undead Druj were at the same time she did, through her eyes. The voice in my gut knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I had made the right decision. Gone was all the clunky exposition and the whiplashing through time. I was telling the story in the order it needed to be told, and I still found a way to open with a bang (by showing the source of Nazafareen’s Ghost, which we’ll get into next week).
So if we’re in agreement that good, engaging stories need to find their true beginning, how do you figure out what it is? I was able to salvage some scenes from that first draft, but I still wasted time that I wish I hadn’t. So here are a few basic rules to get off on the right foot, none of which I can take credit for, but they’re very sensible.
Open at a moment of change for your main character. This is probably the most important, and universally accepted as a golden rule of story-telling. To clarify, it does not have to be the event that kicks the main plot into motion. That does need to come early on, say by the end of the first third of the book, but it actually tends to work better if the reader is already invested in the characters. But within the first few pages (or the first chapter, if you prefer more leisurely reveals), something needs to happen that will change the protagonist’s life for better or worse. It can be small. It can foreshadow the larger events to come. But it needs to hook into the main plot, and it needs to be interesting. Think Harry getting the letter from Hogwarts, or Katniss waking up on the day of the Reaping.
Easy on the exposition. Yes, you’ve spent months or even years figuring out every little detail of your setting and characters, but the reader does not need to know all of it right away. Unloading paragraphs of backstory at the beginning is what’s known as an infodump, and it makes people’s eyes glaze over. Do not do this. Backstory, by the way, is pretty much anything that brings the forward action to a grinding halt. Basically, Lucy, it’s all the splaining we authors must do to bring outsiders into our world, and it’s very important, but it also has to be viewed through the lens of less is more. Parcel out this kind of information (who Susie used to date, why the Klingons and the Romulans hate each other so much) on a need to know basis, as in, if the reader doesn’t have this particular fact at his or her disposal, they will have absolutely no idea what is going on. But if you can get away with waiting until later, do so. It’s the anticipation of answering all those questions that keeps us turning pages in the first place.
Imagine how the end will fit with the beginning. It’s okay if you’re a pantser and make it up as you go along. But I bet you still have some idea of where your story will wind up. This is where you can unpack the emotional arc of the protagonist a bit. What are they afraid of? How do they lie to themselves? How will they grow and change by the end? Does the opening reflect this evolution? Or maybe it’s a tragedy and they are unable to change? Is there a hint of this weakness at the start? In The Midnight Sea, the opening scene sets up Nazafareen as a somewhat damaged character who witnessed the death of her sister when they were both quite young. Besides being scary (monsters!) and suspenseful, it foreshadows her future internal conflict and gives the reader basic info about her character and the world she lives in, but little more. Think of it as a teaser—an emotional moment that can be understood without a huge amount of context, and that leaves the reader intensely curious about what happens next.
Break the rules, do whatever you want, but listen to your gut and be true to your characters, action and setting.
K.M. Weiland, who has one of my favorite writing blogs (as well as an excellent book on story structure), quotes Barnes & Noble editorial director Liz Scheier, who gives us this gem:
“A professor of mine once posed it to me this way, thumping the podium for emphasis: “It’s not ‘World War II began’! It’s ‘Hitler. Invaded. Poland.’”
Anyway, I hope this was helpful! I’ll definitely do a post on how to start your story in the next few weeks, which is a different, although related topic (and fun because we get to talk favorite first lines). See you next week for a chat about Ghosts, and happy reading and writing!