9 Ways to Strengthen Your Beginning
Filled under : backstory , beginnings , Characters , conflict
Just for the record: I hate beginnings. The first fifty pages of my novels are inevitably torture to write. I’m always sure I’ve lost my touch, convinced that every successful story in the past was a fluke, absolutely certain that I’ll never make these opening scenes gripping enough to hook a reader. And it’s no wonder. Beginnings are hard. And important.
They are the sales pitch for your entire story. Doesn’t matter how slam-bang your finish is, doesn’t matter how fresh your dialogue is, doesn’t matter if your characters are so real they tap dance their way off the pages. If your beginning doesn’t fulfill any of a number of requirements, chances are readers won’t get far enough to discover your story’s hidden merits.
Unfortunately for us harried writers no surefire pattern exists for the perfect opening. However, most good beginnings do share a couple traits. Following are nine.
1. Don’t open before the beginning. Mystery author William G. Tapley points out, “Starting before the beginning… means loading up your readers with background information they have no reason to care about.” Don’t dump your backstory—however vital to the plot—into your reader’s lap right away. No one wants to hear someone’s life story the moment after they meet them.
2. Open with characters, preferably the protagonist. Even the most plot-driven tales inevitably boil down to characters. The personalities that inhabit your stories are what will connect with readers. If you fail to connect with them right off the bat, you can cram all the action you want into your opening, but the intensity and the drama will still fall flat.
3. Open with the inciting event: the catalyst. Every story is based on an “inciting event,” the first domino, which, when knocked over, starts the chain of dominoes tumbling. This catalyst is the moment your story officially begins, and, presumably, it’s also the first moment of high interest. Use that to your advantage and get right to the point.
4. Open with conflict. No conflict, no story. Conflict doesn’t always mean nuclear warheads going off, but it does demand that your characters be at odds with someone or something right from the get go. Conflict keeps the pages turning, and turning pages are nowhere more important than in the beginning.
5. Open with movement. Openings need more than action, they need motion. Motion gives readers a sense of progression and, when necessary, urgency. Whenever possible, open with a scene that allows your characters to keep moving, even if they’re just walking down the street.
6. Open with something that makes the reader ask a question. Unanswered questions fuel intrigue; intrigue keeps the reader’s interest. If you can present a situation that immediately has your reader asking questions, you’ve significantly upped the odds that he’ll keep reading.
7. Anchor the reader to avoid confusion. As a caveat to #6, make sure you have your readers asking the right questions. You want to give them enough information so they can ask intelligent, informed questions, not “What the heck is going on here?!” As soon as possible, anchor them with the pertinent facts: who the characters are, what the current dilemma is, etc.
8. Orient the reader with an “establishing” shot. Anchoring the reader can often be done best by taking a cue from the movies and opening with an “establishing” shot. If done skillfully, you can present the setting and the characters’ positions in it in as little as a sentence or two.
9. Set the tone. Because your opening chapter sets the tone for your entire story, you need to give the reader accurate presuppositions about the type of tale he’s going to be reading. Your beginning needs to set the stage for the inevitable denouement—without, of course, giving it away.
If you can nail all nine of these points in your opening chapter, your readers are likely to keep the pages turning all the way into the wee hours of the morning!
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