Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Where to Begin?

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?

38 comments:

  1. Just beginning a new work now and wondering where to start. Thanks for the advice. =)

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  2. Thank you so much for this! I've really been wanting to change the beginning of my WIP because I felt it. . .lacked something or another. This helps give me an idea of what would work better! Thank you so much!

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    1. Yay! You're back again, Photographic Knight! ;)

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    2. I like that new nickname, Vanish!

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  3. Thank you so much, this is perfect. :) I'm planning a new novel right now and couldn't decide where to start...this gives me a much better idea.

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    1. Oh, good, Olivia! Glad the timing was helpful.

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  4. Hmm, now that I think about it, both of my books start with an invite to leave the "home world"... But the reader doesn't see what that 'home world' is! How do you show the home world without it being boring? I'm afraid for one of my MCs it would be like "Chloe got up, made waffles, went to school, did homework, etc."

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  5. Allison, I had a similar problem with one of my historicals. The heroine WOULD be leaving her home and heading for her birthplace, but I needed to establish her at home first. I went through several versions, even had one with her looking in the mirror--booooooring. Finally I hit upon opening with her streaking across the beach on her "stolen" horse (she slipped out to the staples without permission). In a version where I changed the year, she's contemplating "stealing" a car--her best friend's, which he left idling outside her door. Action, but not THE action. Still, it gives us a taste of HER taste for mischief and independence, which is what propels her through the inciting action.

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    1. Thanks for the advice Roseanna!

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    2. Roseanna put it brilliantly. I'll just ditto what she said :)

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  6. I usually either have just one or two pages of home life right off the bat, or show the really big problem, but then have them at home doing their regular thing, while their mulling it over. For the most part, my starters are pretty good, although the other day I found one that made me cringe. Really needs worked over.

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    1. We all have those in our files, MaddieJ :) The good thing is you can see evidence that you're growing!

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  7. My hero's father is murdered in the first 4 pages.

    So much for "normal beginning."

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    1. It's very possible that works well for your story, Maura! Just depends on what your hero's journey is like.

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  8. One of the things I have trouble with is showing the MC's world without it being boring. I try, but...I still need work on that one :)

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    1. I have problems with that too. I mean, lets face it, most people's day to day life can be kind of boring.

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    2. I think Roseanna White gave great advice for that above. I'll copy and paste it in case you didn't see:

      I had a similar problem with one of my historicals. The heroine WOULD be leaving her home and heading for her birthplace, but I needed to establish her at home first. I went through several versions, even had one with her looking in the mirror--booooooring. Finally I hit upon opening with her streaking across the beach on her "stolen" horse (she slipped out to the staples without permission). In a version where I changed the year, she's contemplating "stealing" a car--her best friend's, which he left idling outside her door. Action, but not THE action. Still, it gives us a taste of HER taste for mischief and independence, which is what propels her through the inciting action.

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  9. Thank you for the post, Stephanie! I'm trying to finish a rewrite at the moment, with the next story simmering on the back burner, slowly germinating in my mind. So, this comes at an excellent time as I'm trying to figure out exactly where I want the story to begin! :)

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    1. Good, Gillian! I don't know about you, but I can't hardly start a book until I have a clear opening (and even the "right" opening line) in mind. I've tried before to just kinda write my way into figuring out the opening, but it doesn't work so well for me.

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  10. Thanks for the post, Stephanie! It's really helpful! Some of my stories don't start too far out from the action, and some don't start too far into the action, either. I think how I start a story depends on my mood, for some reason. Like, if I've had an especially normal day, that's how the story will start, or if something super great has happened in my life, I'm more likely to jump into the story headfirst, if that makes sense. So I need to work on having the right balance!

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    1. That does make sense. And the good thing is that "the right balance" is something that can be worked out in edits :)

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  11. I'm very glad I read this as I've been wondering about starting the beginning of a plot of mine. I understand what you're getting at and I think it'll be very helpful.

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  12. I really loved this. I am writing a historical fiction that starts off in the "home place", so to speak, and often I wondered if I should replace the beginning with something more punchy. You have relieved a lot of stress from my shoulders (although I do believe there should be interest in the beginning, in the routine, etc.). Appreciated this!

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    1. Not sure if you saw this, Pure Grace, but Roseanna White talked about her struggles with that up above. I'll copy and paste it in case you didn't see:

      I had a similar problem with one of my historicals. The heroine WOULD be leaving her home and heading for her birthplace, but I needed to establish her at home first. I went through several versions, even had one with her looking in the mirror--booooooring. Finally I hit upon opening with her streaking across the beach on her "stolen" horse (she slipped out to the staples without permission). In a version where I changed the year, she's contemplating "stealing" a car--her best friend's, which he left idling outside her door. Action, but not THE action. Still, it gives us a taste of HER taste for mischief and independence, which is what propels her through the inciting action.

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  13. Beginning are hard on a levels. I struggle with planning a story & then starting it. In my current WIP the story is setnin an intership our of state. It took a few days to start writing bc I had no idea where to start it. I started it on her first day of the internship but was really nagged that it needed to be sooner than that. So I then I wrote her sort of being reflective while getting ready for the day & texting her boyfriend. I'm STILL feeling it may need to be sooner? Like the day or night before she leaves her hometown, maybe?

    Actually I'm 6k in & know I don't have a form inciting incident. I'm trying to figure this out *sigh* but I keep randomly writing while I'm trying to figure out what the plot points will be :/

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    1. I know it can be frustrating (as well as fun) to figure all that out. Craft books often make it sound so straight forward, but it doesn't feel like that with your own stories a lot of times. Sometimes I've totally winged a plot line, only to have it work out perfectly in ways I never could have planned. Sometimes I've planned stuff that looked great in my notes but just did NOT work in the story. So don't feel like there's something wrong with you or the book just because the beginning or the inciting incident are still a bit foggy.

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  14. Wow, Stephanie, how did you know this was precisely what I needed?

    Seriously - just today I was struggling with where to begin a new story. My MC's journey is started by a drastic action she takes, which is sparked by a drastic announcement her parents make. I could start at either of those places, but it just didn't feel right. Now I realize exactly why: we don't know the girl, or her parents, or her "regular life." And we need to.

    Thank you so, so much. :)

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    1. Weird - I love it when timing works out like that!

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  15. Starting books makes me dizzy. I can get a sort of *punch* (well, relatively), but I can't figure out how to make my readers *care* about the character BEFORE I start throwing problems in their face. But I also want to get right into the story when I'm writing (because I appreciate that when I'm reading other books). Tricky. But great post, love the examples (examples are the best!).

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  16. Wow, this post really opened up my view of beginnings. I see them more of a challenge now than an obstacle. Thanks, Stephanie!

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  17. Awesome post! Great reminder for starting books out right. :]

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  18. Thanks for this post. It's exactly what I needed to read this morning before going at my beginning for the fourth time :-)

    All's good!

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  19. Thank you so much for this post! It helped a ton. I needed to read this since I have been freaking out about my current opening. :)

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  20. Most helpful blog so far :) I entered in the 500 word free write and I always get feedback that the beginning is confusing because you jump in at a point of action. For the longest time I couldn't figure out what was wrong, but I get it now! The reader needs to connect with the character first!

    Thank you, this is so helpful!

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  21. Thanks so much for allowing me to comment on this great post. I learn to much from reading your posts Stephanie ... what can I say. You are one of the most generous writers on the 'net. You give so much and what you give is truly golden.

    For this post, as your others, it is very helpful to me to stay focused as I write - regardless of the genre.

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