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Monday, November 16, 2009

Where to Begin a Story

Where to begin your story

Normally, I keep my posts specific to research, but I'd like to broaden the topic today. Where to begin my story, is a question that plagues me with every novel and short story I write. There are a number of places you can begin your story. It’s not a science. Not even the experts can agree on the perfect place to start.

Decades ago, a novelist could open the story with flowery narrative and lengthy descriptions. That doesn’t work in today's world. Today, the first line or paragraph must grab the attention of the reader.

Many of us are tempted to start with the reasons and motives behind our character's behavior. However, let me tell you a secret: Background, also known as backstory, can wait.

In just a few sentences, an author must get the reader's attention, and make them want to know what happens next. That’s not easy.

Some authors to begin the story where the action takes place. But beginning too late can leave the reader lost and even asking ‘why do I care?’

Giving a little set up, then starting with the action is a good rule of thumb.
I try to begin at the moment where the hero(ine)’s life changes, or when disaster strikes. The start of your novel will determine whether the readers is interested enough to continue reading. It will also set the tone for the rest of the novel.

The beginning should fit the progression through middle toward end. That’s best accomplished once the novel is finished.

For example, perhaps your novel is about a detective. You could start with the detective getting up and getting dresssed, having breakfast and driving to work. Or, you could start with the first person who comes into work to make a statement. You could have him at a crime scene, taking testimonies of witnesses. Or you could even start with the phone call in the middle of the night telling him to go to a crime scene. Which would be more interesting? It depends on how you set it up, and on the tone of the story. Is it a mystery and solving this case is the plot of the story? Is it a romance, and this is how he meets the heroine? Is this a thiller, and how he picks up a stalker? Is this a coming of age story and he’s going to learn something about himself?

Other authors begin with immediate action; bank robberies, car accidents and chase scenes have all opened great novels. As long as the opening isn’t the only exciting part of the book, you can do it. It’s up to you. However, without any set up, you risk the reader not caring, so you have to be careful to weave in emotion and sensory detail to create tension.

I read a book once where the heroine was running for her life, chased by wolves and bleeding. It was exciting. The opening line was good, there was a lot of action. But even after page 2 I was totally lost. It took the better part of the chatper before I learned she and her brother were on a quest and that her brother and everyone with her had been killed in an attack by wolves. I think the author should have backed up a paragraph or two and told me who they were and why they were there.

Where to begin the story has as much to do with the timing of the story as the opening line. Many editors have said when they open an envelope containing a submission, they only read a few lines. If they aren’t interested with it then, they toss it in the rejection pile.

So, how do you do it?

An opening with a teaser that demands answers works very well. Here's an example of an attention-getting opening line:

"She's dead? Murdered?"

When you start with that, you're taunting the readers' curiosity and asking questions such as who was murdered? How? Why?

Finding the answers to these questions is what keeps them turning the pages.
Here's another one:

"I've been dodging the hangman for three years, and I still don't know if I committed the crime."

Think of all the questions this one stirs. How could he not know if he'd committed a crime? Was he drunk? Unconscious? What was the crime? To whom? Why has he been running so long? How is he going to resolve the situation?
Here are the first five lines of Gentle Persuasion by Rita Rainville.

"We've got to get rid of Edgar."
"Quietly...perhaps poison."

Does it leave you asking; Who’s Edgar? Who's planning his death? And why?

A lot of people prefer opening with dialogue because the immediacy helps draw the reader in more quickly. Personally, I think the story should begin with some kind of set up right after the opening line – but still with an interesting hook – otherwise it sounds like a voice coming out of the darkness. But that’s just me. I’ve read some great books that began with dialogue, but always felt as if I needed more time to paint the picture in my mind. Beginnings can also be effective in narrative. It all comes back to that opening line.

No matter which form you choose, narrative or dialogue, do your best to tantalize the reader into wanting to know more. Curiosity will keep your reader interested, and if that reader is an editor, it might spark their desire to buy.
The beginning of Stef Ann Holms', Weeping Angel, is a good illustration.
Every woman out of diapers thought Frank Brody handsomer than a new catalog bonnet.
Every one but Miss Amelia Marshall.

Readers will ask questions such as; Who is Frank Brody? Why doesn't Miss Amelia Marshall think he's handsome when all the other women do? Do they know each other? Do they have a history? Is she crazy?

Here’s one from my first novel, The Stranger She Married

Alicia Palmer stepped down from the coach with
all the enthusiasm of a condemned prisoner about to
meet the executioner. She glanced up at the starry
summer sky, seeking courage. Liveried servants
lined the front steps like guards to the gallows. All
she needed was a crowd with an appetite for the
macabre; a role, no doubt that the other guests could

Hopefully, you were wondering why she was so filled with dread? Where she was? Why she was there?

Here’s one from my latest WIP. Does it work?

Anticipation raced through Lady Eleanor’s veins. Across the drawing room from where she sat, open French doors beckoned her toward the cool night. Soon she would spend a few stolen moments alone with the man she loved. True, it was a tender, new love, but more broad and sweeping than she’d dreamed. Before she’d met Tristin Barrett, she’d imagined this kind of love but daren’t hope she’d find it. And now that Eleanor had found him, she knew he was worth any risk.
What questions did you have: What is she going to risk? Why were their moments stolen? Do you care?

Some tips:
* Hook the reader with a compelling opening line
This will create interest and make them want to read more.

*Make sure the tone of your beginning matches the tone of your book and sets up the ending.
If you solve the problem of a character who wants to make new friends, then the ending needs to reflect the resolution of that problem. If they don’t match up, you can decide if you want to change the ending or the beginning; but they must match up.

* Set the tone
Make sure the tone–the attitude displayed by the choice of vocabulary, sentence structure, genre, etc.–sets up the rest of the story. Also, the pace should be the same as the rest of the book.

* Begin the story where the hero’s life changed forever, preferably some kind of disaster.
This form of disaster, and how the hero deals with it, will show the reader who your character is and will make the reader identify/sympathize with the hero.

*Avoid back story except in little drops
Too much backstory slows down the pace and will lose the reader, who, at first will be the agent or editor. How much is too much? Usually, more than a line or two.

* Avoid using a flashback immediately after opening.
Flashbacks are difficult for a reader to follow. Throwing one in early in the story complicates it further. Solidly anchor your novel in the present before leaping back into the past.

*Avoid Introducing Too Many Characters
If your reader needs notebook and pen to keep track of everyone, he or she will get frustrated. Such clutter weakens creates disorder and the reader will put down your book.

Use the opening to name and define a few of the major characters. Define them as individuals with distinct personalities, before you introduce other characters.

*Avoid Dream Scenes
Dreams in general are often seen in the work of beginning writers because it provides an easy out. Therefore, dreams should be used sparingly no matter where they occur in a story, but should not be used as an opening.
(time when it was okay to break that rule)

Now, take an unbiased look at your first page. How many questions are unanswered? If there are none or very few, then look at your first chapter and see where the real questions, the real excitement, starts, then put that at the beginning of your manuscript.

Consider beginning much later (or much earlier). Often, it takes writers a while to get started in a story. Open your ms to page 10. Consider starting your story near here. Would you really miss anything from the first 10 pages? Then flip to page 25. Would this be an even better place to start? Usually, the pages you are sure are critical to the story, are really backstory and set up.

Conversely, do you start with a lot of action which leaves the reader with no idea who these people are? Should you add a paragraph or two to set it up? Build up the tension? Set up the character for a massive fall?

Begin where you feel in your heart the story really begins. After all, it’s your story.


Linda Banche said...

You're right, Donna. One of the hardest things to do is to figure out where to start the story. We've all a little too ingrained with starting "Once upon a time..."

Anonymous said...

the brothers karamazov breaks a lot of these rules... but i love it. I remember having to keep a list of characters and constantly refer to it while i was reading that..... there's enough backstory for 3 novels in one!