Friday, October 8, 2010

(Re)Starting at the Beginning

In storytelling, beginnings are everything. It's not enough to have dazzling characters and a rock-solid plot. If your story starts with a fizzle nobody will ever read far enough to discover the rest.

We've all read some of the most famous opening lines ever written:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....(etc)" Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth." - J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

"All children, except one, grow up." Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
"To be born again," sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, "first you have to die." - Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

"They shoot the white girl first." - Toni Morrison, Paradise

My personal favorite opening line is: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." Stephen King, The Gunslinger

But even an awesome opening line isn't enough. The entire first chapter needs to hook your readers and reel them into the story. Conventional wisdom says that the first chapter of a novel needs to begin in the action. In flagrante, as it were. No more is it acceptable to spend a chapter or two or three with setup, back story, or character rumination. There was a day when readers had to plod through all that chafe to get to the kernel of the story, but not anymore! Now we start with some action then weave the back story and character development into the story as we move forward. Personally, I find this approach much more appealing as a reader, but it can be a challenge as a writer. (We all want to start with the back story...admit it.)

The reason I find myself ruminating about beginnings is that I'm stuck on mine. My novel, Faerie Fate, has had several beginnings, but none of them has stuck. First, there was a prologue. But prologues are so yesterday, so I trashed it. Then I experimented with juggling chapters one through three to see which one "felt" best as chapter one. The one I settled on is just too much back story and plods along too slowly.

So I find myself back at square one. I've had several betas read the entire novel and, aside from the stodgy chapter one, the main complaint was that the first few chapters had too much of a YA feel to it.  The remedy for these problems, at least in my mind, is to write an entirely new chapter one giving the MCs a more mature voice.  I think I've come up with a good start, but it adds an entirely new dimension of mythology to the story, which means I'm going to have to do some rewriting of the rest of the book in order to weave those new elements into the rest of the story.

My timeline? It will be done by November 1st, because: 1) I've got plans to work on a different project for NaNoWriMo, and; 2) I'm determined to start the query process by then.  If I'm diligent I can do it.

So what has your experience with beginnings been like? Do you breeze through them or struggle? Does it depend on the project?  What's your all time favorite opening line?


Cindy R. Wilson said...

Beginnings are hard. I used to be really bad at them. I'm getting better but I know I could still make mine more catchy. I'm trying to keep remembering that the story should start as if it's in the middle of some important and interesting scene--some place that really draws in the reader.

Hannah Kincade said...

I have yet to finish my first draft but the piece I have written for the beginning is pretty good, I think. Although it might be too action packed. We'll see when it's all done.

C Scott Morris said...

My beginnings seem to just flow. I picture my character doing something, and write it. I usually have an outline(one novel down, second novel 33% done), and once I have that beginning, the rest just spurts out onto the pages.
Then later, I go back and chop off the first three chapters because they are just back story and character development, and the REAL story does not get started until later.
It is often said(by Harlan Elison, Mark Twain and Kurt Vonegut for instance), start writing as close to the point where your character becomes entangled in the story. The point where their life changes, where there is no going back. Anything before that, is meant only for the writer to develop character and voice.

Quinn said...

Beginnings are hard. With my first book, I had to really work to avoid an info dump. It was difficult not to do that because the story takes place in a world were some people have super powers (it's not an open, public knowledge thing, but the people who have the powers are accepting of them and don't question it). Anyway, it was hard because what was happening in Ch. 1 had a lot to do with another character being able to see the future.

I guess, beginning's are tricky.

Jemi Fraser said...

Beginnings are tough. I usually write a few versions of the first bit just to make sure I have the voice I want. I don't panic about the words - that can change later, but I need the right voice from the beginning :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I didn't spend much time with back story in the first chapter, but I know the first page didn't start with a bang. My publisher requested a short prologue, one laced with action, and it really made a difference.

Kristen said...

I'm doing the same thing right now. I'm rewriting my first MS, Flashover. I've been rewriting, deleting, poring over the old first three chapters that I'm cutting, rewriting some more, and pulling my hair out. The beginning is a thorn in my you-know-what... Good luck with yours!

RaShelle said...

Hi Mara - I recently chucked the 2nd and 3rd chapters of a WIP to get rid of back story. It's good to keep the reader in the action. Less is more. =D

India Drummond said...

I agree! Openings are so important. I love the Salinger one. So perfectly sets the tone for his story and voice.

I'd love to have feedback on mine for my NaNo project. You can see it on my NaNo profile:

Add me as a friend there, if you haven't already, and I'll add you back.

Jen Daiker said...

I'm jealous of your Wordle! I still have yet to figure out how to put one on my blog and have it enlarge... it's simple I'm sure, I'm just slow.

So I don't have an issue with beginnings but there is a moment inside the middle of the story where I hit rock bottom, my husband can atest to this, and someone he always pulls me through the hump!!!

Brenda Drake said...

After I've written my story, on the first revision I usually throw out the first few chapters and find that the beginning of my story really starts on Chapter Two or even Three. As writers we think we need to explain every thing or set it up too much. The key is finding where the story should start. Good luck with NaNoWriMo. I'm competing as well! :D

I've given you an award on my blog site come and get here:

Joanna St. James said...

I leave beginning till am ready to edit, i dont like rules getting in the way of my inspiration.
congrats on your award I stopped by from Brenda's blog

SH said...

I know when I first started writing my story, I started with so much back story. I guess I needed to make it out in the open for myself to understand the character better. But now that I'm doing the first edit, I took a lot of it out. It was just a bunch of unnecessary details.

Maybe you can change around the first few chapters and start around with a lot of action. You're right, as I writer I'd like to start with scenery at times, but as a reader, too much information about scenery bothers me.

Hmm, maybe next time I should pay more attention to beginnings. I know a few of L.J. Smith's novels have caught me with their first lines, one of them being: "It was on the first day of summer vacation that Poppy found out she was going to die." (Secret Vampire)