The beginning isn’t necessarily the beginning.
That might sound crazy, but there is a lot of sense in it. It means that authors don’t actually start their stories at the beginning. If anything, they start them part way through – what would normally be chapter three.
The advice sounds contrary, but it actually isn’t. It means don’t start the story at the beginning, i.e. don’t spend time writing several pages of introduction to your characters and the background and the set up, way before you get to the core of the story. Start it at the core.
In reality, the beginning would probably be chapter three or four, when things usually start get interesting in the story – but that’s where the story actually begins.
Every writer wants to make an impact with their novel or short story, and that impact starts at the opening paragraph. There is no shortage of advice on how to make that impact – starting with a bang or an important turning point – but often the writer has to decide exactly at what point in the evolution of the story it should actually begin.
Many writers make the common error of writing too much narrative and exposition at the start of the story. There is always an urge to tell the reader absolutely everything about the story from the very first page, in the belief that doing so is the only way to give the reader all the information required to understand the story. It’s the same if you have written a prologue – they also have a tendency to kill any interest with the reader, because they are one huge info dump. All this stuff will slow down pace and bore reader to death.
The opposite works far more effectively – do away with prologues and lots of narrative explaining things. Start where it needs to start. There is plenty of time to introduce your main character and show the reader the story set up once the story has shot from the starting blocks and gained momentum.
The old adage is right – less is more. Trim the fat and keep things lean. In other words, drop all the stuff you think the reader needs to know in favour of the stuff the reader absolutely must know.
It’s what they don’t know that keeps them turning the page, after all.
Compare these two examples of story openings:
He had shot and killed his own son. Blown his brains out.
The memories and images would not go away. They remained scrawled against the inside of Xavier Koslov’s skull like constant, piercing reminders of what he had done.
He had destroyed the most precious thing to him and forgiveness seemed as far away as redemption, and yet it had had brought him to this moment, to the gates of Berlin...
Does the opening immediately set the scene? Yes, because we learn immediately the character has killed his son. Does it grab the reader’s attention? It grabs the attention in way that lures the reader in to wondering why he shot his son. What impact does it make? It’s an emotional and shocking impact because the story starts in the right place - it starts at a pivotal moment, it starts where it needs to start; at an interesting moment in the character’s life.
Now compare it with this kind of opening, which is not uncommon, especially with new authors:
Xavier Koslov peered into a piece of broken mirror and gauged his reflection. For the first time in over twenty years, he had shaved his bushy beard, desperate to rid himself of the man he once was. Now a trim, chiselled face stared back at him. His frame was much leaner, too. As a member of the Partisans, they had covered the forests on foot, pushing through dense woodland for many hours at a time, day after day on the march through Poland and as a result he had become fitter than he’d ever been in his life, though he retained his broad, muscular shoulders...
Unlike the first example, this one makes the mistake of starting with irrelevant narrative, thus lessening any impact and the chance to grab the reader. It’s a mini info dump of exposition and is sure to bore the reader after a while.
If you have a story and you are not sure where to start, it’s wise to start at the turning point in your character’s journey, instead of writing three or four pages introducing said character before any of the action actually starts.
Imagine the reader is a passerby on the street and something has just happened – the idea is to immediately make the reader get involved, to wonder what’s happening and not to miss any really good bits, instead of them simply walking by and ignoring the scene because they’re just not interested. Make them want to be caught up in the action.
That’s why you have to create an impact; you have to start at a turning point or defining moment in your character’s life, which is key to the entire story. Don’t info dump, just get straight into the story.
And remember, the beginning isn’t necessarily the beginning. Examine your novel
Next week: Problems with multiple viewpoints