writing

What Makes a Good Beginning?

I’ve been talking about writing beginnings in my writing posts. Beginnings really are difficult, but there’s only one absolute rule: your beginning must make people want to read more. If it does that, nothing else really matters.

But how do you do that?

  • You can write a real grabber of an opening line that makes readers want to know more — a killer first line.
  • Show just enough of your story world to keep readers intrigued — enough to give them a sense of place and what’s going on, but don’t answer all the questions up front, and don’t give an infodump near the beginning of the book.
  • Show the protagonist’s potential — whether you’re writing a true hero or an antihero, your main character is probably going to change and grow during the story. The antihero may have a redemption arc. The hero may learn some valuable lessons. Let readers get a sense of what the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses are, what their goals are, and what they’re going to have to overcome. But, again, don’t tell everything. Questions and curiosity help keep pages turning.
  • Present the story question the plot will hinge upon — will they beat the villain/complete the quest/save the day?
  • Show the stakes if the protagonist fails

The job of the story’s beginning is to:

  • Introduce the main characters — preferably one or two at a time so readers have a chance to get to know each one instead of being hit with all of them at once. When you go to a party, are you more likely to remember names and something about the people you meet when you’re introduced one-on-one or when you’re brought to a group and quickly given all their names?
  • Set the stage — show us just enough of the world to allow us to understand where/when we are and what’s different from our world, but leave us curious about seeing more.
  • Set up and then show the inciting incident that kicks the story into motion.
  • Define the story goal that comes out of the inciting incident and the stakes.

The lovely thing about writing a novel is that you don’t have to get the beginning right from the start. You can always go back and revise it. Don’t get hung up on getting the opening just perfect before you move on. Chances are, as you get deeper into the story, you’ll learn a lot about your characters and world, and that knowledge will help you go back and improve your beginning. Making the beginning perfect before you’ve written the rest of the story may even be a waste of time. The things you figure out along the way may lead to you changing the way you start your story. What you write as an ending may give you better ideas for how to begin. The ending will show you what your characters really needed to learn, which will allow you to hint at that need in the opening. You’ll know from the ending how the world will change, so you’ll have a better sense of what you need to show in the beginning. You may even find that the opening scene as you’ve written it is entirely unnecessary, and the story really begins later. Writing the rest of the book may give you ideas for that brilliant opening line.

So, don’t fret about your beginning until after you’ve written the book — especially for a first novel. More experienced writers may start writing proposals to sell books, so they only write a few chapters, but that usually comes after you’ve written some complete books. For an early novel, just worry about starting in a way that sets the stage and gets your characters going. You can make it better later, and that will be better than if you sweat over it before writing anything else.

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