Thursday, July 21, 2011

Writing 101: Beginnings

Beginnings are something that keep a lot of aspiring writers from writing. Few things are more daunting than the blinking cursor on a blank screen. Where do you start your story? How do you hook readers right away? How do you get over your anxieties?

Well, there's a lot of answers to those questions, and as usual I'm going to put up my disclaimer that nothing works for everyone. But here are some tips, both practical and theoretical, to kick start your story.

1. Start on the day that's different.

I originally heard this advice as a quote from someone -- writer or publishing professional, but unfortunately I don't remember who. It's awesome advice, though. If you're struggling with the question of when exactly your story begins, consider your main character's life, and zone in on the day that things change.

Pop quiz: what happened on the day before Harry got his first letter from Hogwarts? Can't remember? Neither can I, because the story doesn't start until that letter comes! That was the day that changed his life. (Well, one of many.)

You can narrow things even further and start the moment things are different. Be careful with that tactic, though. If you dive in too quickly you don't really give your reader a chance to know or care about the main character. We learn a little about Harry's awful life and terrible family before he gets the letter, and that gives us plenty of time to start rooting for him. Which brings me to the next piece of advice....

2. Make something suck for your protagonist immediately.

And I do mean immediately. First sentence if possible, but failing that, first paragraph will do nicely. It can be anything, really -- a stubbed toe, a screaming baby, a house fire. Readers want to sympathize, and a negative event is one of the quickest ways to snag that sympathy.

3. The primary conflict and antagonist should be clear within the first 25% of the story.

In other words, before you hit the quarter way mark, your reader should know: who the main character is, what they want, and what's keeping them from getting it. This is traditionally known as the first act.

4. Delete your first three pages.

I got this tip from Writer's Digest. Now, the silly thing is, every time I start a new story, I balk at this advice. "Excuse me, my first three pages are absolutely essential! Why, look at all these things that happen and this important information that's conveyed..."

And guess what? In the end, I always end up killing those first three pages. I do that even when I start by thinking to myself, "If I were pretending to start on the third page, what would be happening?"

Of course, it's not always going to be exactly three pages. And, though I've never heard of 'em personally, I'm sure there are people out there who write perfectly efficient beginnings the first time. But the point is, know that there's wiggle room. Expect that you're going to have to delete some stuff from the beginning. When you put the first words on the page, you're just warming up, so don't worry about getting it right the first time around.

5. Just begin!

My fourth grade teacher told our class a story I've never forgotten: a great painter stood in front of his blank canvas, hemming and hawing and not getting any painting done. His wife, noticing his distress, asked him what the problem was.

"I don't know where to begin," he said.

So she took the paintbrush from him, dipped it in paint, and swiped it across the canvas. "There," she said. "You've begun."

Whenever I'm stuck for where to start writing, I always think back on this story. It helps me with novel beginnings, but also scene beginnings. The first words are always the hardest. Just throw something on the page! Maybe it's garbage, but you get to delete it later.

To quote Louis L'Amour: ""If you’re going to be a writer, the first essential is just to write. Do not wait for an idea. Start writing something and the ideas will come. You have to turn the faucet on before the water starts to flow."

Happy beginnings, all! :)


Michelle Julian said...

Great post! I've already started thinking about your tips for my beginning and I think it'll help!

Anonymous said...

Great advice! My beginnings never stay the same, so I try not to worry too much about them in early drafts.

Bluestocking said...

I have to rewrite my beginning at least a couple of times before I'm satisfied with it. I think it's important to have a beginning you can work with while you are drafting, but once you hit "the end" it's time to revisit your opening chapter and make it shine.

Holly Dodson said...

Great advice, Lauren. Beginnings are very hard, but I love the story about the painter -- that puts it into perspective. Just start, worry about the rest later. ;)

Melody said...

Great advice, thank you so much!! *stars* Definitely saving this! :) {And the first three pages's true.}

K.D. said...

Great clear advice for people like me who agonize over starting only to wonder after what they were so worried about...

Katy said...

Great advice! JUST START is certainly the hardest part for me, but obviously the most important. Thanks, Paper Hangover!

Tere Kirkland said...

It used to be that I was horrible at coming up with opening scenes, but I've gotten a lot better at it.

For me the key is to figure out what scene will convey the mood of the novel, and at the same time offer an opportunity to see the mc in action, whether that's showing their flaws or strengths or both. If there's world-building that needs to be done, that can complicate things, but not if you really get to know your pov character, see things through his/her eyes.

Great post, Lauren!