by Stephanie Morrill
Beginnings are tricky little buggers, and landing on the right one for your book takes planning, writing, and rewriting.
Early on in my writing journey, I erred on beginning my stories too early. I gather this is a somewhat common mistake because when I attend writer's conferences, there's often classes on starting your book in the middle of the action and such.
Yet when I read through the 500-word free write entries, I was surprised to find many story openings that had lots of action and plenty of emotional punch ... but I didn't know the characters well enough to feel punched. More often than not, beginnings weren't working because the reader had no context of why this mattered. We were missing a taste of the main character's regular world.
By that I mean we've never seen your character's routine, their day-to-day life. A life that isn't perfect, that they would like to change, but still it's a place where they're comfortable know what's expected of them.
While too much time spent in the character's home world can get boring quickly, it's a necessary piece to the story structure if you want the reader to care about what your main character cares about. In Lord of the Rings, would we care about saving the Shire if we hadn't spent any time there with Frodo? In The Hunger Games, would we understand the heartache of Katniss volunteering as tribute if we hadn't accompanied her on a routine hunting trip in District 12?
While your character needs something to do or an immediate problem to solve in the opening scene, it should be something that acclimates us to their regular life. It should tell us who they are, where they are, and what matters to them about this place and situation.
In The Hunger Games it's simply that Katniss needs food for her family. The routine activity of her sneaking through the fence and hunting is loaded with meaning for us - it means this teenage girl provides for her family, it tells us a lot about her society, we're introduced to the people she loves, and those hunting skills of hers are rather important.
So ask yourself what story event changes your character's world (in other posts we've referred to it as a "doorway") and is your opening scene preparing the reader in a way that they'll feel the emotional impact of it?