If all of writing was as difficult as the first 50 pages, I probably would have wimped out years ago and found myself a new vocation. (Something easy and safe—like being a Walmart greeter or maybe the collector of the quarters from Laundromat machines.) Despite the fact that I already know every plot turn that will arrive in the pages to come, and that I’ve sketched my characters down to the most obscure detail, and that I’ve probably even imagined the half-dozen splendid panegyrics that will appear on the glossy back cover—writing those first fifty pages is always a foray into dangerous and unknown territory.
4 Qualities of a Strong Beginning
It’s no wonder, of course, that beginnings are difficult when you consider their weight in the overall story. Beginnings must accomplish all of the following:
1. Give the readers a reason to care about what happens to the characters.
2. Plant an irresistible hook.
3. Introduce overall tone (satiric, dramatic, etc.).
In short, the beginning of every story is rather like a résumé. You flaunt your talents and skills and hope the reader finds what he’s looking for. Otherwise, you’re never going to make it off the bookstore shelf.
No problem, you say. I’ve got great characters and a killer plot. All I have to do is start writing. Unfortunately, I’ve never met anyone who actually could just do that, although I suppose it’s reasonable to suppose that the planet does possess a few such blessed writers. All I know is I’m not one of them. For me, as for the majority of novelists no matter their skill levels, beginnings are a tight-rope act. And it’s a long fall to the bottom if you miss your step.
So how, pray tell, does one go about avoiding that fatal misstep? Well, you write and you rewrite. And then you repeat. Not what you were hoping to hear? Me neither. So in the interest of keeping us both happy, allow me to throw out a few helpful suggestions regarding what makes a beginning a success.
The Secret Ingredient to a Successful Story Beginning
Utilize character in beginnings. Beginnings are all about character. If the reader doesn’t find your character interesting, why should he stick around to follow this same boring character through the next three-hundred pages, no matter how brilliant your final plot twist may be? Ultimately, people read fiction because of character. They aren’t going to waste their time on characters that aren’t brimming with life—and neither should we as writers. From the very first page, we have to give the readers a character they won’t be able to get out of their heads. But more important than just imbuing our cast with scintillating personalities and rapid-fire wit (although never underestimate either of these), is giving the reader a reason to care about the characters.
Why Action Alone Is No Match for Character
Young authors are often encouraged to begin with action. Apparently, the theory is that if you throw an obvious protagonist into a harrowing situation, the reader will love him just because he’s in trouble. Not so. Someone in trouble may elicit a sympathetic response from me on a surface level. But to make me really be concerned about what happens to this person I first have to care about him.
Let’s say we pick up a story that begins in the middle of a fistfight. Probably we will be at least marginally interested in what the fight is about. But we aren’t going to particularly care about who wins the fight unless we care about one of contestants. Beginning the story with a fistfight is definitely a good idea (as opposed to, say, opening with the protagonist warming up before the fight), but unless you throw in a reason to make the reader care, you’re probably sunk.
For years, I struggled with the idea of adding narrative to my openings. The “call to action,” as it were, became a major stumbling block for me. My gut kept telling me that I needed to introduce a character, not an event. I fought the idea, thinking that I’d lose the reader’s attention if I slowed down long enough to sketch a few important details about the protagonist. But it dawned on me, as I pondered this question, that I had never been turned off by a few artfully placed paragraphs of narrative in a beginning’s opening. In fact, it was the straight action openings that completely turned me off.
Don’t get me wrong: action (aka conflict) and suspense is the heart of any story and definitely an essential factor in a successful beginning. But, without a strong character introduction, they aren’t going to be worth very much by themselves.
How to Open With Character
I am adamant that this one facet of the beginning is the single most important factor, not just in opening a story, but in setting the tone for the entirety of the tale to follow. So what’s the best way to introduce this dazzling character of yours without overloading the reader with unnecessary facts? Following is a very non-exclusive list of suggestions that can be used, in any order and any combination,
Name the Character
Give the reader a name to build on. It’s easier to sucker someone into caring for a character when we know his name. Obviously, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, since numerous first-person narratives don’t name their characters outright (such as Daphne du Maurier’s classic Rebecca, in which the main character is never named at all).
If possible, use the opening scene to exemplify a part of the character’s personality that will play a vital role later on. For instance, in Behold the Dawn, I introduce my character in the middle of one of the great tourney battles in which he competes.
Show the reader, through your character’s words, actions, and internal narrative, how he views the world. Is he a cynic? An idealist? How does he view the conflict on which the story has opened?
Granted, character is only half of the delicate balancing act presented in a story’s beginning. A good character in a boring story is still going to be about as flat as yesterday’s soda. But if you can master the art of character introduction, you’ve already licked three-quarters of the battle.