- because you can change it later - just get started and see what happens. Changing the beginning later is one of the easiest aspects of a revision, but you need to get the beginning down now, even if you end up moving it.
- because the hard and fast rules are not very hard or fast. The essential one is: do what works for THIS book.
- because starting points are about to be a lot easier to think about, as I'm about to give you some guidelines. Hooray! And then some options and examples. Even more hoorayish.
There are beginnings and beginnings: the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first chapter, the first 5,000 words. Your first book. All these are beginnings and all are important in their ways. One leads to the other, and if you get one wrong, you may lose your reader. In this sense, the first sentence and paragraph are technically easier and less important than the first chapter / 5,000 words, because most readers will give you the benefit of the doubt if you haven't 100% grabbed them in a few lines.
HOWEVER, I aim to grab readers as early as possible and hold them in a vice-like grip until way after the last sentence of the book. So, for me beginnings simply involve techniques, and are not really more much more important than the rest. I recommend you take the same view.
So, GUIDELINES. WELL, OK: RULES:
1. Your first chapter (and I tend to prefer my chapters short, especially first ones, but this is NOT a rule) should do the following:
- give a strong flavour of what sort of book this is. Sinister? Poignant? A thriller? Shocking? Light? Easy? Chicklit? Erotic? Historical?
- introduce the setting / period / context [showing, not telling it].
- give tantalising clues about future action.
- introduce a main (usually the main) character and his / her central flaw or problem.
- contain elements which make it impossible for the reader not to read on.
- that the reader knows nothing that is in your head. But you must be in your reader's head at all times, especially the beginning, when your reader is ignorant. Your reader wants to be engaged but he could very easily pick up a different book instead if he doesn't understand enough of what you're planning. So, you must give them enough for them to understand what you want them to understand. And not understand what you don't want them to understand.
- that the reader cares absolutely nothing for your characters. It is up to you to make the reader care. Quickly and powerfully.
- that the reader does not want lots of explanation, backstory and introduction. The reader wants only to know why he should spend many hours reading this story.
4. Although writers angst about beginnings, actually they should be angsting about middles. Beginnings are easy compared to middles and more readers are lost in Chapter Two than Chapter One. It's usually not too difficult to use Ch 1 to pose all sorts of intriguing and compelling elements. Trouble is, novice writers often then pack Ch 2 (and the ensuing ones) with interminable back-story and dull explanation. Please bear this in mind: back story needs to be drip-fed, gently, so that we want more, not less. Think of your reader: will he thank you for making him drool with excitement in Ch 1, only to be bored rigid by a history lesson for the next 10,000 pages? Or even three.
5. Consider carefully how much information you give, how many clues you offer. Tell enough but not too much - NEVER tell too much at the beginning. But do tell enough - the reader doesn't want to be confused. There can be a fine line between confused and intrigued.
There is only one place to start your story: the right place for that story. Every story has its best place to start, and you have to find it. For this, you should not be thinking about rules: you should be thinking about story-telling and engaging your reader. I cannot tell you where to start your story. But I can tell you some places I've started mine and why.
[NB: the techniques and rules of novel-writing are identical whether you are writing a novel for a ten-year-old or a ninety-year-old. Books for teenagers and other young readers have some extra rules and conventions, which make them harder, not easier, to write. Therefore, please do not for one second think: she writes novels for teenagers - what does she know about rules and structures? Frankly, I am required to apply rules and structures more rigorously, not less. Adult writers can learn a thing or two from YA / children's writers. OK?]
Fleshmarket, does this. I called it the prologue because it happens six years before the main story. The protagonist is a 14 year old boy who, when he was eight, heard his mother scream during surgery without anaesthetic, and watched her die of blood-poisoning five days later. That scene [surgery + death] is the first chapter and was absolutely the right place to start: it is the beginning of Robbie's story; the whole reason why his life is as it is by the time we get to Chapter 2, when, aged 14, he meets and seeks revenge on the surgeon responsible.
It's also a supremely shocking first chapter. It has been described by many people as the most shocking opening of any book they've read. [It's never put a teenage reader off, btw...] Again, shock is one way to grab your reader, if your readers like to be shocked. It is an honest way to start this book, as it very much gives a flavour of what's to come. You are left in no doubt as to whether or not you want to read on. I chose to take the risk of alienation, because I judged that enough people would be drawn in. As it happens, I was right and Fleshmarket has become my most read book.
The Passionflower Massacre, my favourite of my novels, btw, should you wish to honour me with a purchase. The first chapter is set 25 years ahead of the main action. An old woman is visiting a man in prison, where he has been serving a life sentence for mass murder and is about to be released. Various clues and questions are introduced: who is the woman? Who is the man? What is each planning? [They both clearly have secret motivations.] What will happen when he is released in three weeks' time? Chapter 2 goes back to the main action. The prison scene is then repeated, each time with the man one week nearer release, until his actual release day...
Both these books also use a sinister, rather than shocking, start. They raise questions, set tone / mood / voice / atmosphere. They tell enough but not too much.
But a much more obvious and paradigmatic end start is my opening for Chicken Friend. Chicken Friend is my one book for 8-10 year-olds, and my one "light" one, although there's a lot of suspense and stuff to worry about for the reader; one of my blog-readers, the "anonymous" Proe, an adult thriller writer whose opinion I obviously respect, was kind enough in a recent comment to praise its mastery of thriller techniques.
Here's how CF starts:
"I suppose they're saying I messed up. Yes, well, I'd like to see you cope any better with a family like mine. I was only doing my best. But when you have a family straight out of Crazyville, "best" doesn't actually make much difference. Like trying to clean up a litre of milk with a cotton bud.
Personally, I blame them. The crazy family.
Right now, I'm sitting in the chicken shed on my own. Apart from the chickens. It's a good place to sit and think and try to work out where it all went wrong. And wait. Chickens don't judge. But they are good listeners."
It is, at least, enough to set the scene and make the reader want to know more. But, it's near the end of the story. Very near the end of the story. And she's going to tell the whole story now. So, the reader knows that she doesn't die. The chickens don't die. The chicken shed does not catch fire. So, by starting at the end, you automatically remove SOME elements of surprise.
This won't matter, because Chicken Friend has lots, lots more to hook you with. And that, really is the point: writing is not about hooking the reader at the beginning. It's about hooking the reader and keeping her hooked for every single sentence.
And that's why you shouldn't angst too much about beginnings.
Both my highwayman books do this. The Highwayman's Footsteps gets stuck in with this opening paragraph:
I felt cold metal on the side of my skull before I heard the voice. I knew at once what it was. A pistol. Resting on the bone just behind my ear. The favourite place for murderers, robbers, highwaymen - because, by angling the pistol slightly inwards they could be sure to blow a man's brains out before he might have time to scream.Can't get much clearer than that: in medias flipping res, or what?
And, as for the sequel, The Highwayman's Curse, here's the first para:
None of these beginnings is any better than the other. Each is simply exactly right for the story that follows.