Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Beautiful beginnings

"There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth ... not going all the way, and not starting." ~Buddha


Most of us love the idea of a new beginning. It's a fresh start, full of possibilities and wonder. Beginnings, however, don't always live up to our expectations, or those of our readers. They say you have three paragraphs in a short story to captivate an editor. In a novel you have about three pages, if you're lucky. Readers are busy these days. If the opening of a story doesn't grab readers, even non-editors, they're likely to toss it aside. Let's take a look at some things that can help us connect with our audience right from the start. 

Who does what and where

Character: Give them someone to care about. This entails creating a protagonist readers can either sympathize or identify with and easily imagine. 

Conflict: Something goes wrong for this character, or at least there's a hint of some future trouble.  Since readers care about him/her, they are going to want to come along for the ride. 

Setting: Add enough detail to help anchor readers into the story.

Set the tone: Is the story going to be comical or serious, frightening or romantic. Choose words and setting details that portray these qualities.

A word about descriptions at the beginning

While it's important to develop the character and setting enough for readers to care about and feel a part of the story, the beginning isn't the place for long descriptive passages, generally speaking. We want to start off by throwing readers into a situation and give them just enough to make them want to come back for more. More information can be sprinkled in along the way to the finish line. A few well selected details about setting and character can go a long way. 

Study and practice

It's always a good idea to learn from the masters. Pull several novels and short fiction collections from your shelves, or visit your local bookstore, and read the opening paragraphs or chapters. Pay attention to how the authors set up character, conflict, setting and tone. Then, when you're working on your own story, try several different approaches and see what works best.  

Tomorrow's post: Crafting conflict 
  
 


19 comments:

  1. You are my master... Really your explanations make me feel like I'm becoming a better writer just by reading them :)

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    1. I've had that feeling before! Thanks so much for your comment. I think when we read about craft and imagine ourselves improving it really does make us better writers. :)

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  2. kewl post, how would you respond to someone that complains that you put them into the action too soon at the beginning? It was necessary was my answer to get the book moving.

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    1. I always have as many people read my work as possible, and I've found that there's always someone to complain about everything. It's when more than one person has the same opinion about something that I start to really think it might be an issue to address. In the end, it's your work and you know what's best. It sounds to me like you had a great beginning!

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    2. Thank you Heidi, as it was only one person, I decided to leave it as it was, with a few tweaks in the edit. Thanks for backing up what I'd concluded.

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  3. Oh, beginnings! It takes me ages to think of how to start a novel, but I just *know* when it's the right beginning. Thanks for this post. Good luck with the remaining letters!

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    1. Yes, it seems that writing is largely instincts. Thanks for your post!

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  4. Useful post Heidi. In particular, reading the opening paragraphs of good quality novels and really analysing what it is that you like about them. This is something many writers forget to do.

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    1. Thanks! Yes, I don't know what I'd do without other writers to learn from. That's the best way to learn, at least for me, is to read.

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  5. Nice little post. :) C sounds intriguing... will be back tomorrow.

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    1. Thanks Chris! I look forward to seeing you again.

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  6. Tone really is an important element of a beginning. There's nothing more jarring than having a drastic tone change.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Connie. I agree.

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  7. For me it's not conflict that makes me continue beyond the first few pages. All I really need is some element to engage me. Usually this is a character, and I agree with how important a sympathetic character can be to many hooks, though I don't have to sympathize. Stephen Fry's Hippopotamus opens with a rant by its jerk of a protagonist, and he's so across-the-board mean in such funny and shameless ways that I read through the whole thing when I'd meant to just junk it because of my mood.

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    1. Very true, John. There are a bunch of anti-hero type characters out there that entertain us greatly. Thanks for your comment.

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  8. A great beginning is half the journey... wonderful advice shared here! Thanks :)

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