Thing is, where is the beginning? Where does any real story start? And in fiction, where should you choose to start it?
Although it was a blog-reader or two who asked me to talk about beginnings, it's also a sore point for me because I've been struggling with a beginning of a new novel. Sometimes the beginning is the easiest bit - in fact, we'd probably agree that usually the beginning is the easiest bit. It's certainly the most important bit, because if it's not good enough no one will get to read the middle or end.
I think there are three aspects of beginnings that we need to look at. [God I sound serious / pompous today.]
- When to start
- How to start
- Things to avoid
Simple: start at the point of the story which will hook the readers and draw them in quickly.
This could be with a flashback or a much earlier event which triggered the main narrative. Examples are Kate Atkinson's brilliant latest novel, When Will There Be Good News? and [if you don't mind my mentioning my own books but they are the ones I seem to know most about] Fleshmarket, by me. Both start with a shocking event which happened years before the main story. Both also enable a childhood event to be related, with a child's POV, but then for the main narrative to be from a more interesting and sustainable viewpoint than a child's.)
Or it could be a flashforward, but only if relevant. You can't contrive a flashforward: it must be intrinsic. And, you have to be careful because you risk giving the game away. I used this device in The Passionflower Massacre and it is also how The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein, my favourite book in the world, starts.
Or it may not be an earlier event, but simply "in medias res". Jump right in with a compelling episode; get right to the point. This is the method with fewer drawbacks. Perhaps the most common way to start and one which readers find most comfortable?
Or you might decide to begin with backstory /scene-setting straightaway. Clearly this has got to be very carefully done and the back story has to be compelling enough. Never start this way just because you feel the need to explain things - only start this way because you think that's what's going to draw the reader in most compellingly.
2. How should you start? Method / style /mood etc
The options are:
- shock - I like this option, though you can't do it all the time. I did it with Fleshmarket and its shocking opening became notorious. (Even Ian Rankin was shocked ...). I think Kate Atkinson's opening is more shocking. But I'm planning to surpass both of us with my new WIP.
- mystery / intrigue - hmm, wonders the reader, that sounds really spooky / fascinating / intriguing. I must read on to see what's actually happening. This was my choice with Mondays are Red, where the opening shows a boy waking from a coma. (In medias res). I did it in The Passionflower Massacre, too, with several things to wonder about: "Who is the old woman? Will the weird religious guy get out of prison? Why is she visiting him? Is he going to manipulate her? Why is she not afraid of him?"
- scene-setting / portrayal of main character (MC) doing something relevant but not shocking - just don't overdo the static scene-setting: we do need to have a reason to read on. Remember: you are interested in your MC, but we are not until you give us very good reason. Is your MC interesting enough or do we need serious action as well?
Things to avoid
- playing with the reader too much. The reader doesn't trust you yet and readers hate to be messed around with. Give them enough to keep them happy yet hungry.
- too much back-story. The reader may well need some in order to understand, but it must never feel false, never feel as though the author is prepping the reader full of info, never expect the reader to remember too much too fast. Drip-feed the back story. Give the minimum.
- the rather clichéd opening of shocking Chapter 1 followed by huge dollop of gentle backstory /history lesson in Ch 2, followed by the story getting going again. You've lost half of us by then.
If it's all as simple as that, why did I have trouble with my new WIP? Actually, I'd written the shocking first chapter quite easily, but this is only part of the beginning, because it doesn't introduce my MC. Chapter 1 is very short, a brutal act that happens to a secondary character. But Chapter 2 needed to introduce my MC. And that's the proper start of the story. It's certainly the start of the main story, the MC's story. And I had a strong feeling that since Ch 1 was so brutal I wanted to lighten things so that the reader wouldn't think he was going to be battered by awfulness throughout the book. But I still needed it to be dramatic and compelling, because you have to be thrown straight into the MC's life, without too much back-story. Or even without any.
I knew a lot about the MC's back-story, though I had no plans to tell the readers yet. Certainly not in Chapter 2 as that would have been a real let-down after Ch 1. What I also knew was that there was something missing, something that would motivate him to do something quite out of character. Why would he help the girl horribly attacked in Ch 1? I needed him to. But he wouldn't.
Unless something happened. And then I got it. Yesterday. It was a eureka moment and the dog got a bit of a fright. Suddenly I knew what happened. Something that would shock the character and throw him out of his helplessness and inevitable life of crime, something that would be morally ambivalent (because I don't do twee and cute and this is gritty YA writing I'm doing). I'm afraid it wasn't gentle at all - it was shocking again. But it wasn't bleak. And now, the readers will root for him, this street-kid who you'd not want to meet on a dark night, or even a sunny day.
So, now, the story is rolling - the beginning was the sticking point and from getting the right beginning everything else will follow.
There are two lessons here:
- work on it, walk on it and it will sort itself out - stories have a way of doing that if you give them space
- once you get the right beginning, everything flows from that - for both reader and writer
An extra tip, if you still can't get your beginning:
Just write A Beginning, any beginning. Start anywhere. Because guess what? You can always change it. There's a delete button on your computer and pages can be ripped from notebooks. Just get started and the true start will sort itself out later. In some ways, that's what I did - because as well as thinking and walking to try to sort the problem out, I also started writing a character description and back-story (not to go in the book, but for me to get to know this MC properly) and it was while writing that that I realised a) what was missing and b) how to fill the gap. I suddenly realised that I'd inadvertently started writing the episode itself - and I rather quickly had to shut that document and start a new page entitled, gloriously, CHAPTER TWO.
Hooray for Chapter Twos! Because from them follow Chapter Threes. And then when you get to the end, you stop, as the King said. But where to stop? Endings, you mean? That's for another post, and about time too, I hear you say - one of you asked me ages ago to do endings. But I had to do beginnings first. Of course.