How to write a good beginning

I’ve been thinking about beginnings a lot lately, as I’ve begun revising my Nanowrimo book (again!). Please note: if you are first drafting a new project, don’t worry about crafting a killer beginning! Just write your crappy first sentence and forge ahead. If you worry too much about a great opening now, it will only slow you down. There is plenty of time to think of this when you’re revising.

That said, beginnings are hard. Probably because they are so important: without a good hook to reel the reader in, no one will read past the first few pages. I’ve found some useful tips to share with you.

In his book Hooked, Les Edgerton assures us that every book is about the same thing: trouble. Trouble is central to the plot of every novel. Further, Edgerton says, “If stories are always about one thing and one thing only—trouble—then the story shouldn’t really begin at any time other than when the trouble begins.” If we begin too long before the trouble begins then we risk boring our readers with too much back story or inaction at the beginning of the novel. Edgerton also takes a really hard line against including any back story in an opening at all—all that can be sprinkled in (judiciously, so as not to stagnate the plot) later on.

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass suggests opening your book with a scene that shows the protagonist displaying some admirable or heroic qualities. I’ll admit that I took issue with this idea at first, as some of my favorite novels feature protagonists who are decidedly unheroic. That said, Maass’s book is geared toward writing popular commercial fiction, and it seems that the heroic protagonist is prevalent in the majority of those books (which, in itself, is interesting). Also, he made another suggestion about displaying some “larger than life” qualities in your protagonist. When an opening really grabs me, it has more to do with the unique voice and outlook of the protagonist, which I think could fall under the category of “larger than life”.

The Hooked book also does a good job of dissecting an opening, with an “inciting incident” that indicates the character’s first “surface problem,” which is connected to the “story-worthy problem” which will be the core of the book. This has helped me–liberated me, even–to focus on the big issues my character will face in my revision, instead of dwelling too much on backstory. Her past is evident, yes, but it doesn’t need to play a starring role in the opening.

I hope this helps. I’ll report more ideas as I come across them. What techniques have you found that have helped you write a good opening?

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Published in: on February 21, 2010 at 2:46 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I like that idea of the story starting where the trouble begins. I guess I use a similar approach; I think about where the moment of change is for the character (either a BIG change or a smaller change that will lead to bigger ones) and try to start the story as close to that as possible. Easier said than done, of course. 🙂

  2. The first chapter of my WIP was critiqued at a conference yesterday. Because my critique group and I have read many craft books, my opening included a heroic action and the inciting incident. The editor started by saying she knows writers hear a lot of advice, but personally, she would have liked me to put off the external conflict for at least two more chapters so she could spend more time getting immersed in my underdog character and his world.

    So, you never know.

  3. That’s so interesting – it is a tricky balancing act, isn’t it? We have to open a story showing a character changing, or facing some conflict, but we can’t start off with the big conflict right off the bat because our readers don’t know our character; there’s no context, yet. It’s something that I struggle with, too. I think the HOOKED book had some good advice about how to start with conflict, but not a scene of the BIG conflict, nothing too dramatic or action-y, or else, how do you follow that?

    Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. It’s difficult, I know. Keep at it.


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