Starting over: The art (and agony) of writing beginnings in fiction.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done an article specifically about writing, the craft and practice of writing. A lot of authors’ websites give writing advice pretty often, and as you know I stake my “brand” on being different than that. But I’m just coming out of an extremely intensive two-week period of fiction writing, which has proven very productive. (For first looks at what I’ve been writing, join my email newsletter!) With writing craft on the brain as a result of this experience, I thought I’d say a few words on what I think is the most difficult problem in writing fiction: the damned beginnings. I say damned beginnings because I hate beginnings. They are from the Devil. They are sent to tempt us into evil, and beginnings have destroyed many a writer’s soul. There’s no silver bullet to slay the dragon of coming up with a compelling opening for a story, novella or novel, but I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things about them, mostly from trial-and error.

The problem with beginnings is that the stakes are very high. The opening of a story is like closing a sale. It’s like selling a car. Your name, title, cover, subject matter or genre has baited the reader to pick up your book or click “Look Inside” on Amazon–so your reader is interested, the equivalent of a car customer who’s walked into the showroom and is attracted to a particular vehicle for whatever reason. The beginning, however, is probably where the reader will make the decision to commit to your story or set it aside. It’s when the car customer actually gets inside the car and starts the ignition for the test-drive. If the engine sputters, makes a disagreeable sound, lurches uncomfortably or isn’t to the customer’s liking for any number of reasons, he or she will shut off the car and go look at another one. So you’d better make the sale on that first page.

my typewriter

My trusty Remington Rand typewriter from 1948 has seen a lot of story beginnings, most recently a novella I completed at the end of August.

At the same time, while it makes the purely transactional “sale,” a beginning also has to fit with the story it’s opening. It has to be artful, make sense, not be jarring or artificial. It has to flow into the story. Developing writers will often concentrate so hard on making the “sale” in their opening lines that they forget their beginnings are organic parts of their stories. A lot of writers will take too literally the advice you often hear from agents or editors, “Where’s your ‘hook’ on the first page?” When writers go all-in on forging what they think are “hooks,” they often get pulled off course. I critiqued a short story recently by a friend of mine who’s just starting out. It was a Western story with a really interesting concept, but the story began literally in the middle of a violent brawl in the saloon of the story’s one-horse town setting. Certainly there’s action–a “hook”–but without knowing who the participants in the fight were or what the stakes were, I as a reader was bewildered. My friend is reworking his story and plumbing the depths of the conflicts between the characters to determine what the reader needs to know to start with.

I have a mixed record with beginnings in my own writing. Here’s a success. Zombies of Byzantium begins in the art studio of a medieval monastery, when the main character, Stephen Diabatenos, is called into the office of the abbot to be informed of an errand he’s been assigned to complete, which of course leads to an encounter with the undead. I could have, and perhaps should have, begun the story when Stephen and his companion Theophilus are already on the road, walking toward a mysterious Greek village, and explained later how and why they came to be there. Zombies of Byzantium takes place in the 8th century C.E., however, and since this is such an alien environment I thought it was important to orient the reader right away to (a) who Stephen is, (b) what century it is and what the world is like, and (c) what the stakes are in the journey he ultimately takes. Stakes are very important. Think of your story as a poker game. Your readers want to be dealt in as quickly as possible. In crafting a beginning, decide the absolute bare minimum of cards that your reader needs to get started, then deal them those cards quickly, deftly and gracefully. If they’re playing poker by page two–however many cards still remain to be dealt out to them–you’ve got a successful opening. I think Zombies of Byzantium does that.

Movies are different animals than books, but you can occasionally learn something about story openings from films. This “pre-credits sequence” from the James Bond film Diamonds are Forever (1971) is one of the most tightly-crafted story openings I’ve ever seen.

I have less confidence in the opening of Doppelgänger, which was extremely hard; I wrote three or four different versions of the first chapter before time ran out and I had to go with the one I’ve got. Doppelgänger begins with a setting call: “Sweden, 1878,” then describes a character–who happens to be dead–walking into the lake resort house of his fiancé, only to vanish slowly in front of her. This is a “grabber” of an opening that also sets the scene and the tone of the narrative, but there’s something about it that seems jarring, especially when in the next scene the action shifts suddenly to New York City and the fortunes of a woman who will feature heavily in the plot to come. Doppelgänger is a terrific book, becoming rapidly my favorite of the novels I’ve written, but perhaps I would have been better off starting with the scene that begins Chapter 2–when the main character Anine and her husband arrive at their creepy New York mansion–and doing the rest through back-story.

There are few pieces of advice I can give about writing beginnings that are categorical, but here is one of them. Never, never, never begin your story with a character waking up. If you’re still a developing writer, I can virtually guarantee that you’ve violated this rule on at least one, and perhaps all, of your early stories. Wake-up scenes are not merely a cliché, they’re hideously boring and will mark you as an inexperienced amateur. When was the last time, in your own life, that anything interesting happened when you woke up? Even if your life is an action-packed roller-coaster of pulse-pounding thrills–if you’re Indiana Jones, James Bond, Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter–does anything interesting ever happen in the first moments of your day? I recall on Twitter recently that a literary agent live-tweeted her reaction to ten submissions pulled randomly from the slush pile. Six of those ten were stories that began with characters waking up. Six out of ten. She could tell instantly that none of them were any good.

kermit typing

I wish writing beginnings was like this. In reality it takes a lot of time, practice and revision.

If you’re in doubt about a beginning, one thing that might help you is to go back to some of your favorite books–the more personally meaningful to you the better–and read their openings. Don’t try to copy a beginning, and for God’s sake don’t go looking for commercial best-sellers in your genre and try to reverse-engineer them; that gets you back into the “hook-making” business I talked about earlier. Find a book you love, not necessarily a book whose author or sales you aspire to. Read the opening carefully and concentrate on what it does for you. Here’s one of the most famous openings of all time, from Melville’s Moby-Dick, a story with personal resonance for me:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

I’ve abridged the opening slightly at the ellipsis just to save a little space (Melville is verbose in that 19th century way), but you get the point.

The opening of Moby-Dick is iconic enough that it is often quoted verbatim in film versions, as it is in this one, made for cable TV in the 1990s. Henry Thomas plays Ishmael.

What does this beginning do for us? Well, a lot, actually. From this paragraph here’s what we know and the issues it provokes.

  1. The main character’s name is probably not really Ishmael. Thus, he’s making himself into someone else. Why?
  2. We’re in for a sea story involving sailing ships, a classic setting for adventure.
  3. Ishmael is searching for something. Not just money, but something deep and primal.
  4. The story takes place in an indeterminate past, as if he’s telling it decades later. That means the story he’s going to tell us must be memorable, unusual or important, if it’s worth recounting in detail many years later.
  5. Melville’s wonderful and evocative prose (“damp, drizzly November in my soul”) is instantly engaging.

This beginning works because it’s beautiful, it draws us in, and it raises deep questions about a character who is immediately interesting. Suppose Moby-Dick isn’t a great work of literature but just another book. You, as a reader, like nautical adventure stories. The book probably has a sailing ship or a whale on its cover. You pick it up on click “Look Inside” on Amazon. You’ve gotten into the car and are ready to try the engine. When you hit the ignition, it purrs to life with a very pleasing impression. This beginning has sold you. You’re ready to drive this car wherever it takes you.

If you’re a writer, hopefully this primer has been helpful to you. Beginnings unfortunately never get easier even if you do a lot of them. But the key, as always, is to keep writing. If you know your story well it will tell you where to begin. Best of luck.

The photos in this article were taken by me and are copyright (C) 2016, all rights reserved (no rights claimed to the text of Moby Dick, obviously). I am not the creator or uploader of the YouTube clips embedded here nor the animated .gif.
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7 Comments

  1. I’m enjoying your comments and want to – once again – thank you for the extensive suggestions on writing which you sent me a few years back. Today I’m not up to doing the research that was necessary in my biographical Byzantine novels but have been working on a few short fantasies, only one of which I’ve posted on Amazon Kindle (Descended Into Hell.) In your post you talk about the difficulty of detailing the setting in the first chapter. Although I was able to establish that in the late classical Antonina without great difficulty, I found it impossible in Count No Man Happy where I had to explain all the religious feuding early. Perhaps I could have fed that to the reader bit by bit over the length of the story but I wanted to get it done with so that he could immerse himself in the meat of the story. (What a disgusting image. Sorry.) Whatever, it is really difficult when the extremist religious setting is so alien to us today, and uninteresting to most moderns. (I’m no Umberto Eco.)

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