Basics of writingOpenings

The case of the missing beginning

From Rick:

On numerous occasions I’ve preached about openings: make sure you have a strong one, and make sure you start the story in the right place. But what if you have a story in mind, one that you’ve written a significant chunk of—or maybe you’ve finished it—and you have no idea of how to begin the story? In other words, you can’t come up with a beginning you like and that gets the reader into the story.

Without the details of a particular story, I can’t give specific advice, but let’s think about the problem for a moment. You have a story with no solid beginning. The first thing to think about in terms of a solution is to look at where the story and the main character are currently. Assuming the story itself is relatively solid otherwise, we might ask how the character got to his or her current spot (where you started the writing).

Let’s use a simple example. The character, John, is stranded on a highway, car broken down. The sun is setting down and it’s a relatively deserted highway. A car eventually stops, and a stranger, a female, offers him a ride. We find out this is a vampire story, she’s a vampire, and he’s in big trouble because she’s going to turn him into a slave for her and her kind. As the novel works its way along through its plot and subplots, he discovers some secret about them and takes them all down (or whatever).

I can hear some of you moaning and groaning: “Not another vampire story” or “That’s so lame!” We’re not here to critique the viability of the story. Besides, it’s just an example! We’re only interested in giving it a good beginning, so feel free to insert your own story here.

You’ve written most of it and think it’s a good story, but you can’t figure out a good opening. The problem isn’t a matter of making a strong opening. You’re just have no idea how to open it. Using my suggestion above let’s look first at who John is and why he was stranded on that highway. We’ll ignore what’s the world like that has vampires in it and whether he doesn’t even know they exist (my assumption is he doesn’t).

How might we begin this doomed bloodsucker tale. We could start it exactly where I did above, with John (although I wouldn’t not call him “John.” Let’s give him an interesting name. That not only adds to his character, but it might spark an idea for a beginning. (even if you already named your character John and you’ve been writing this novel for years, think about changing his name as one solution for an beginning.

I’m going to call him Ellis. And that name suggests someone nerdy or clueless or rich—or some combination of those. As the author, you probably already know exactly who your character is, especially if he’s going to take down the vampires, but in case haven’t made him interesting enough, here’s your chance to do that (even if it means some significant rewriting).

Ellis’ car, the one he loves and takes great care of (maybe he’s a car enthusiast and it’s an expensive sporty car that he always wanted and was finally able to afford), just broke down. Why did I do that? Well, this way he and his car are going to attract more attention, the wrong kind of attention in this case, make him a vampire magnet.

But I’m getting carried away. This is your story, the one you need a beginning for. On the other hand, maybe this is your problem. The reason you can’t come up with a good beginning is because you spent all your time crafting a good story that you forgot to make the character interesting enough. A dull character makes for a dull beginning in the reader’s eyes. Maybe all you need is to change your character up a bit.

Another idea is to begin the story exactly where I did, with Ellis being stranded and the car picking him up. We can fill in who he is and how he got there later, or even in his conversation with his rescuer.

One way some stories begin is near the end. Then they go back and show how the character and events came to that point. Ellis could be imprisoned by the vampires and is thinking back on how he got into his predicament.

One thing a lot of new writers seem to have in common is that they feel the need to introduce the characters and paint the setting before the story actually begins, not realizing that this is the perfect way to BORE the reader. (And I’ve talked about this before, so be sure it has sunk in.)

Many times, the problem with a missing beginning is simply a matter of finding where to start the story in the story’s timeline.

Therefore, when thinking about how to start your story—a story you’ve already written a good chunk of—consider that maybe you’ve already written the beginning and just don’t recognize it. Two action movies that come to mind that begin in the middle of things are Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. They don’t “begin” in the conventional sense; they jump into the story and fill in the character details later.

Granted some stories do need some setup, but new writers go wrong by thinking that they need to explain everything to the reader before they can begin the story itself. That’s a good way to turn a reader off.

Some of you are probably scratching your heads at this point asking, “What’s he talking about? Isn’t the first line of the story by definition the beginning?”

No. The first line of the writing is not necessarily the story’s beginning. And that’s the problem some writers may encounter. Take my poor example of Ellis stranded on the roadside and about to become vampire fodder. Before we can decide the story’s beginning, we must decide what story we’re going to tell. Ellis may be the “hero” of the story, but are we telling his story, the vampires’ story, or some other story in which Ellis (and possibly the vampires) play big roles? This is something the writer may not recognize or that may have changed since first conceiving the story.

What if the writer knows what story is being told and has all the right players but is still not sure where to start the story? How do you figure that out? One way is to experiment, and that’s often the best way. No rules exist to tell you with any degree of certainty exactly how to begin telling your story. You can’t rely on the old saying “begin at the beginning,” and I’ll explain why.

Let’s go back to my novel The Mosaic as a good example. The actual story goes back unknown thousands of years when the Mosaic was first made and why it was created in the first place. As I told you a couple of weeks back in Part 2 of how that novel came to be written, Chris Keaton’s screenplay opened with precisely that scene: the reason for the Mosaic’s creation. That scene would make a great movie opening in the same way that the opening action scenes in Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark grabbed the movie viewer’s attention. In a novel… such scenes not so much.

The second option was to open with the twin teen girls (the main characters of the novel). However, the scenes Chris had written for the girls, while very good and interesting, lacked the punch an opening should have. We decided to open with a scene that gave some mystery and action and introduced the threat that will be faced (kind of a parallel with the Star Wars opening but with less action and intensity). Then in our second chapter, we introduced the girls and slowly began the buildup. Star Wars uses the same technique when the next scene switches to the desolate planet where Luke Skywalker and his aunt and uncle are. In both stories, far away things are happening, and you know that somehow the two story lines are going to come together.

Another technique I see in a number of adventure TV shows and movies (but not limited to adventure stories) is to show a dramatic scene (an explosion, someone in a deadly situation), then flash back to some time prior to the event (2 days ago, 6 hours earlier) and move forward until the story reaches comes to that point and moves past it. While it’s an effective dramatic technique, sometimes I think it gets overused.

While I earlier that there are no rules here, that’s not completely true. I’ve found one guiding rule: Begin where the story matters, where something is about to change for the main character or something significant is about to happen. The Mosaic’s, the opening scene marks a change that will affect the lives of every character in the novel.

If your story currently begins with a longwinded (no matter how well written) description of the character and an introduction to the character’s situation, then you probably haven’t found a good beginning.

Ellis had just finished cleaning, polishing, and tuning up his Corvette convertible on a perfect summer day. He’d take it out for a drive. Maybe a road trip. He hadn’t seen his friend Aaron in over a year, and Aaron lived over a hundred miles away.

Aaron had never seen the car, didn’t know Ellis had finally bought the car of his dreams. They had gone to college together… [LONGWINDED EXPOSITION FOLLOWS]

He’d surprise Aaron, show off the new toy, and take Aaron out to dinner at the best steak house in the state. Ellis’ mouth was already watering.

Um… not a good place to start because it doesn’t tell us anything important, doesn’t hint at a change about to happen, and it’s boring (to everyone except the writer, who probably things it’s great). If you’re going to do this, at least ditch the second paragraph, then flash ahead to Ellis stranded because the Corvette broke down. Much better to open with Ellis already stranded, cursing his foul luck because, in his anxiousness to impress Aaron, he left his cell phone at home. THEN maybe you can briefly flash back on how he came here, and a few minutes later, along comes this car, his salvation…

Even that’s a little weak—unless you have a strong title to the novel (which might shore up this opening with reader expectation). Here’s the deal. You’ve gotten this far with a partially or fully written novel, so surely you can use the imagination that got you here to figure out a great beginning. I’ve said many times before on this blog that it doesn’t matter how great the rest of your novel is if readers don’t get past the first few pages.

If you still can’t come up with a great beginning, consider that the problem might be with the story itself. Maybe it’s not as strong as you think it is. Maybe something is missing. Maybe it’s an easy fix. Or maybe (and I hope this isn’t the case) you need to consider a MAJOR revision. Maybe it’s something as simple as rearranging. That’s what we did with The Mosaic. The backstory that opened the screenplay is still in the novel, but it’s not in the beginning. It’s told much later.

In my first novel, More Than Magick, I also had a problem with the beginning because I tried to put the backstory first. Once I recognized that problem, the solution was simple: I just needed to rearrange the first three chapters.