In this post, the first of a series of three articles, Icy Sedgwick takes us through arguably the most important part of your story: the beginning.
“Let’s start at the very beginning, what a very good place to start!” – Maria von Trapp
If you browse any writing blog or manual long enough, you’ll come across a section on beginnings. There are even entire books dedicated to nothing but the beginnings of novels. You’ll no doubt be told that the opening to a story is the most important thing you’ll write, since it’s the beginning that determines whether or not a reader will keep reading. Don’t get me wrong, that’s very true, but it’s also possible to tie yourself into such a Gordian knot that you end up never writing the story because you’re not sure exactly where you should start. Trust me though – beginnings really don’t need to be all that scary.
Here are five ways you can tackle beginnings, and get cracking!
Just start writing and hope for the best
Don’t forget, there’s nothing stopping you editing your story when you’re finished, so if you write your story and find you started in the wrong place, you’re perfectly entitled to change it. No one need ever know! If you’ve started your story about an alien priest and a shapeshifting badger going on a road trip through time, and things don’t get interesting until they leave the seventeenth century inn, then cut the scene inside the inn, and save the information gleaned from their discussion for later. Start where the going gets good.
Write out an outline and decide at which point the story really starts
I often use this method. Say I come up with an idea and it seems like there are several possible routes it can take before it becomes a story. I focus on the idea in its simplest form, and then write a list of bulletpoints of those things I want to include in the story that seems to best tell this boiled-down idea. When you’ve got the story elements laid out you can see what will work and what won’t – and often where the best starting point is. Sometimes I’ll have thought I was going to start a story at point A, but once I see the story skeleton laid out, I might realise I’d be better off starting at point B.
Write a paragraph as a sort of ‘back story’ that you can delete when you’re done
One of the problems writers can often have is that they have a wealth of back story and they’re desperate to share it with their readers. It’s difficult to believe but it really isn’t necessary for a reader to know everything you know about the characters and their world. They only need enough to make the story plausible. If you really don’t feel you can sit on your back story long enough to dispense a drop at a time throughout the story, then write an opening paragraph of nothing but back story. Remember to drip-feed this information as you go along, but when you’re finished, you’ll probably find you can delete the opening paragraph, and the story still makes sense. Your readers will thank you.
Write several beginnings
Writers often forget that writing is not like a maths exam – you don’t get extra marks for showing your working out. No one need even know what your first attempts at a story look like – you get to decide when it’s ready for public consumption. That in mind, if you’re really not sure where to start, then trying writing three or four different beginnings. If they lead to completely different stories, great. Otherwise, pick the strongest and stick with that. You can always use the discarded beginnings to generate totally different stories in future. You can always get a trusted friend or beta reader to look them over, and offer an opinion as to the strongest opening.
Read the opening lines of your favourite books
Writers can’t ever hope to write successfully unless they also read a lot. Choose a handful of titles, perhaps by your favourite author or in your favourite series, and take a look at the opening paragraph. Maybe just look at the first line. What has the writer done to hook you into the story? Without slavishly copying the author’s style, can you use a similar device for your own work? Sometimes reading something that isn’t your own is enough to refresh you and revive your interest in your idea. Besides, these are opening lines that cut the mustard with a bona fide publisher or editor. You can learn a lot from them.
What about you? What other tips do you have for ensuring you get off to a flying start? And stayed tuned in two weeks time for Icy’s article on ‘Middles’!
Image courtesy of Ed.