Thursday 17 September 2009


""Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."" Lewis Carroll makes it sound so simple.

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.]
  1. When to start
  2. How to start
  3. Things to avoid
1. When in the story should I start?

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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?"
  3. 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 clich├ęd 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.
Simple, really.

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:
  1. work on it, walk on it and it will sort itself out - stories have a way of doing that if you give them space
  2. 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.


Catherine Hughes said...

Ahhhh, thank you!

I've been trying to start with shocks and too much backstory needed filling in from that point. So I amended my first chapters - chapter three became chapter one, and then, when that didn't work, chapter five did! The same things happened, but the order in which they happened got mixed about and actually, when I finished messing, I realised that this was how it should have been all along!

I have to finish the current WIP - whose begining also got messed about with - and then I have a new one to start, but I do already have a portion of that chapter one.

And I know now that I like to start in media res - it's what works for me. Anything else and I get caught up in backstory or just plain confused!

Thanks again!

Jenna Wallace said...

A topic near (and not so dear) to my heart these days. I was close to finishing my third draft, having made major changes to chapter one to bring more conflict into it, only to be told in my critique group that there still wasn't enough conflict. I've rewritten and now there is a prologue with a shocking event, then on into chapter 1. Enough conflict? We'll see.

After putting months into 80,000 words, I can tell you that the hardest part has been the beginning. The rest of the book makes me happy. Thinking about the beginning makes me want to cry with frustration.

On a related note, does a first chapter always have to have conflict? Does it ever work to have a book start with joy?

Thanks Nicola for the post.

Elen C said...

I cannot find my copy of Birdsong (damn house moves!) If I remember correctly, the beginning is really interesting (from a writerly pov). It is a tranquil, slow, beautiful description of a house by a river.
Then, he tells you the river is the Somme and the date is 1910.
Total shivers!

Anonymous said...


Your link to the Moth Diaries (which I'm buying on your recommendation so it better be good!) is broken.

Also, thanks for re-enabling anonymous comments.

And also also, I'm working on a pretty gritty YA myself at the moment. I'm holding nothing back (though I'm still this side of 'Doing It'), but wondering if this is only gonna appeal to boys at the age when boys stop reading.

Does anyone have any recommendations of recent gritty YAs with male protagonists?

The Proe

storyqueen said...

But you know, it is HARD to give up that first beginning, even if you know you need to when you look back at is HARD.


Susan Wallman said...

I've been reading your posts for a little while now - and it's high time I posted to thank you for an interesting and helpful blog.

I'd like to ask how much you plot your YA novels before you start.

Nicola Morgan said...

Dear All
Sorry am in rush but will get back to you - meanwhile, [bugger it], none of the links work. I will get onto it. Later


David John Griffin said...

Interesting reading as always, Nicola, thank you!

With both of my finished novels, I started beyond Chapter 1; but of course, didn't realise this until later. It was the starting – anywhere – which was important, as you pointed out.

I had a few probs getting going with my third. This included three false starts (all different novel ideas) but the one where I reached 3 chapters isn't wasted, as I realised I can weave it in to my latest idea/WIP. Waste not, want not, and all that...

I'm about to mention your post on one of my posts, hope that's OK.

Marie said...

In general, I start with the beginning that first comes to me. Then later I can play around with it and adapt to the work as it has developed.

This post was very helpful - Thanks!!

Nicola Morgan said...

Does a first chapter have to have conflict? Hm. If I say yes, someone will find an exception because there's an exception to virtually everything (notice I said virtually ...). Depends what you mean by conflict, I guess. Certainly has to have something set up that could create a conflict later. To be honest, I don't think it matters whether it's conflict or something else as long as i want to read on. And I wouldn't recommend putting in a conflict just for the sake of it.

Elen - sounds like an example of wonderful reader manipulation - make 'em thinks all's well and then shock 'em.

Proe - for recent gritty male protgs in YA, read keith gray's books. Ostrich Boys eg. Don't worry about the idea that teenagers stop reading - plenty don't. Having said that, YA stand-alones by debut writers are having a very very tough time right now so I hope you won't have finished your WIP before the recession is over! Also, does the book need to be aimed at boys? Can you aim for both? ([btw, Moth Diaries is much more a girls' book - very deep and dark but very female. I don't normally say that but I think most would agree. Sorry!]

storyqueen - oh, I know!

Seymour - thank you for your comments. As for how I plot a YA novel - gah! Need a whole post! [I will, I promise]. Thing is a) I am very haphazard [or write organically, as i prefer to say] and b) each books has been done differently. Hope I can help but i suspect not. Oh, and I don't think it would be different whatever age group, though

David - of course. Feel free. I'm honoured.

Marie - spot on!

JaneF said...

I wish I’d had the benefit of all this great advice before starting my WIP. My problem with the opening chapters was that I had too much information to convey (my WIP is a mystery with a historical slant). The solution I tried first – starting at an earlier point in the characters’ lives – just didn’t work, maybe because I was trying to make a story out of backstory. It took me ages to admit this, though, and revert to my original starting place, because I liked some of the new scenes in which my characters interacted as children. But I just had to use that delete button on the little blighters!

In the end (as you suggest here) I moved some of the backstory and historical stuff to later points in the story, and that has made a big difference I think.

Like Seymour I’ve been lurking for a while and am getting so much out of your blog –full of useful stuff and so much fun too. Thank you!

Jm Diaz said...

I was sent here by another blog, and BOY am I glad I followed the recommendation. This was an outstanding post. thank you very much.

Donna Gambale said...

Congrats on the eureka moment! It's so lovely when everything finally clicks.

This was a perfectly timed post for me. My blog is doing a Sneak Peek Week, in which each person in our critique group posts part of her WIP. Today is my turn. I included the first page of chapter 1 -- and I mentioned that I wrote SO MANY drafts of that chapter because my chapters alternate focus among 3 best friend MCs. So I had to introduce the first storyline AND the three girls as a unit.

Also, I initially started the chapter a little too late in the story. I had to go back about 10 minutes in time to really give the readers the proper beginning. (I can thank my critique group for realizing that one!)

Ian @ Tidy Books said...

Some great advice, a beginning need not be a beginning, as long as it's interesting and relevant.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recommendation of Keith Gray: I'll check him out.

I've actually got a two-book YA deal at the moment (my first with YA!), and am working on the 'gritty' stand-alone while waiting for notes from my editor. The stuff I sold is also boy-oriented (though I very much hope girls enjoy it too), but this gritty thing feels pretty gender-limited. Along the lines of Lee Child, say, or Robert Parker, but younger.

I suspect that 'gritty' works better for girls, or at least is more accepted by editors. Something like Tender Morsels or the way you describe Moth Diaries (which I'll still check out, because a great book is a great book, though I prefer 'gritty' to 'deep and dark', given my own personal definition: the former is not necessarily emotionally intense, but the latter is). Or even the very-not-gritty-but-still-with-'adult'-content stuff like the Gossip Girls--or the Gingerbread, The Way I Live Now stuff. Translate that into boyworld, and you end up with sex and violence in a possibly-alarming way.


Nicola Morgan said...

JaneF - all lurkers welcome, but even more so when they leap out of the shadows!

Jm Diaz - very glad to see you here. Thanks for the comments

Donna - sounds like a tricky one but you're getting there. 3 MCs are hard to handle - are you finding one is taking the upper hand?

TidyBooks - thank you!

Proe - ah, the gender thing. It's mostly in the minds of the publsihers, as I expect you have guessed. Real readers read great books regardless of gender intentions, as you've worked out. There are still some that appeal more to boys than girls and v-v (and same applies with adults - eg i can't cope with Nick Hornby). And males /females often do like reading about different things. But with teenagers, aiming for both makes sense. Keith gray nearly always has male MCs ( a clue to their boy appeal) but girls like his books too. He's a lad himself, but with girl appeal (keith is a friend, so I can get away with saying this!)

Moth Diaries is def deep and dark, rather than gritty. It's very emotional but it's supremely intelligent. I hope you like it even if it never affects your writing. My current WIP is def gritty, and more boy-oriented / less emotional than my others, but girls won't notice. Girls seem to be less affected by supposed gender focus in books. There are quite a few myths about who reads what but unfortunately we have to toe the line a bit. Congrats on your deal - when and what and who with?!

* said...

Love the points you make here. Especially to "work on it, walk on it and it will sort itself out" and to give the stories we're writing space. Thank you for the great post!

catdownunder said...

This is the point at which I need to head out on my tricycle and think. This is the point where I dare not let myself anywhere near paper, pen, pencil or keyboard. I have to get something sorted out in my head or it ends up as a total mess. It might still end up a mess (the usual state of affairs) but I have some hope of unwinding it - slowly, like a tangled skein of wool.

Anonymous said...

Well, my hope is that everything supremely intelligent affects my writing -somehow-. Lord knows I could use the help!

The books are with Egmont. I'm too shy to say more: you can imagine how good this makes me at self-promotion. I've few adult novels published, but these are my first YA. One day I will have written 10% as many books as you ... if you slow down, dammit!

I've actually got a pet theory about the gender stuff, at least in terms of YA (that is, not including MG). First, I think you're largely right. Readers are readers, kids are kids, and for the most part what they're attracted to is wonderful stories.

But I also think that one reason girls are thought to be less affected by gender focus is that (given, as you say, there are always exceptions) there are many books that are explicitly for girls. They have female MCs, and address what are usually thought to be 'female' topics. Gossip Girls, Tender Mercies, Twilight, etc.

Then there are relatively gender-neutral books; this is where girls often get screwed, because many people insist that these MCs be male (to get male readers) even though the subjects aren't explicitly male. Harry Potter (though I'm just talking YA, not MG) is an example and, well, the majority of YA novels.

But there are very few YA novels that are explicitly male in the way that Gossip Girls or Gingerbread (or probably Moth Diaries) is female.

Part of the reason, I think, is that an explicitly male version of YA would make many adult extremely uncomfortable. I'm a long way from 15, but I'm pretty sure that two of my primary interests at that time were sex and violence--and in a rather, erm, celebratory way. I wonder if one reason we don't see a phenomenon like Twilight among boys is because the 'male' version of Twilight would involve a high school kid who went to a new town, became a vampire, and used his powers to pull people's beating hearts from their chests and boink all the girls.

K M Kelly said...

I was always told that the story starts 'in your characters normal world but at the point of change' - that pivotal moment from which the whole story spins off.

Easier said than done of course. I would second your advice about just writing and then going back and looking at it and asking 'is this really the point of change?'.

Yet another fascinating and thought provoking post. Thank you Nichola. :-)

Unknown said...

When it comes to the gender question:

If a young girl hangs out with the guys, reads their books, plays their video games, shes cool. A tomboy. No issues.

If a young boy is interested in very feminine books and likes spending time with the girls, his sexuality is questioned. And at an age where you're still struggling to understand your hormonally charged body, things like sexuality are a highly sensitive subject.

Personally, I think its more of a self conscious fear that keeps boys away from "girly" books. Perhaps if the MC was a scantly clad Amazon that ripped the still beating hearts from her victim's struggling bodies more boys would be interested... but then, girls might just be somewhat repulsed :P

Anonymous said...


"Perhaps if the MC was a scantly clad Amazon that ripped the still beating hearts from her victim's struggling bodies ..."

I might actually write that!

And I suspect that Lara Croft proves you right.

TOM VOWLER said...

Brilliant piece, Nicola. Funny that we both blogged about openings on the same day.

Administrator said...

Great post. But aarghhhh! Yes, guilty of the old cliched opening, i stuffed a load of backstory into my second chapter, after a shocking opener, and didn't realize until a freelance editor pointed it out. Why can't we always see these things ourselves? Yet another reason why blogs like yours are so good...

Jesse Owen (Reading to Life) said...

I've changed my plans for the opening about 4 times for my current WIP and i'm almost happy with it.

I do need to make sure now that chapter 2 doesn't full flat with too much backstory now.

Thanks for another great post.