QOTW: Writing Beginnings

28 May

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This week’s QOTW was inspired by Marina, who asked, “I’m sure all of us agree that the beginning of a story is the hardest part to write. How do you guys approach writing the beginning of the story and what do you find works best for grabbing reader’s interest?”

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Beginnings are definitely tricky. Sometimes, the beginning that I originally write doesn’t end up being the beginning I go with. For my YA novel, I knew exactly how I wanted my story to start. It was something about my character, Danae, and her people that was just such an interesting backdrop to get the story going. It’s short, but I like to think it does the trick. For other works, I sometimes found myself unsure how to start it. So I would just start writing my story, and worry about the beginning later. I think what seems to work best for me is visualizing my story; what is interesting about my characters, or my plot? What event sets thing into motion? Knowing that I need to hook my readers right from the beginning (or risk my readers losing interest), it can be a bit daunting. Just try thinking of what sparked your story; what was it that compelled you to write it? Whatever it is intrigued you enough, so perhaps it will intrigue others just as much. If anything, just remember that writing a beginning doesn’t always have to happen at the beginning. Just start writing even if you aren’t sure; at some point, it’ll come to you.

The Writer Working in Publishing

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My only real rule for an opening is to start with action, and to create a scene that will fill the reader with the perfect balance of understanding and curiosity. I certainly don’t want to jump so far into the action of a scene that the reader has no idea what is happening, but I do want the reader to have questions. After all, questions keep pages turning. But no one will read very far if they don’t start to find answers, or at least clues, to the questions raised by the opening scene.

I also want to second what Vanessa said about not getting too caught up in the daunting task of creating the perfect opening. Often, when you type the first paragraph of the first draft, you are still sort of feeling around in the dark. Once you’ve written a bit of the first chapter, (or maybe several chapters!) you’ll have a better sense of what the story is really about. You need to have an understanding of your hook, but sometimes the hook becomes clearer as you write. Don’t be afraid to write a very rough opening scene, knowing that you can re-visit it later. If you’re like me, by the time you feel that a manuscript is ready, you will have re-read and re-written chapter one more than any other part of the book!

The Other Writer Waiting on Submissions

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Beginnings aren’t the hardest part for me; I even have tons of them cluttering my computer’s memory. I tend to write a beginning I find entertaining and then leave off because I’m not interested in writing the whole story. When I first get an idea, I jot it down somewhere so I don’t forget it. Then, if I’m lucky, it keeps going from there and I find myself writing for pages. That’s when I know I have a story. Other times I write a few paragraphs and leave it. Then later when I’m revising, I worry about whether or not what I’ve written actually works as a beginning or whether I have to write a new one.

I find that I try to establish two things when I start a story: who and where. I want the reader to get sucked in by the characters and wonder about them. If a reader gets invested or interested quickly, they’ll keep reading. I focus on the ‘where’ because I write fantasy and I have to establish my world quickly (but without bogging things down with a brief history and a glossary). I like to start with action too, so that something is happening; hopefully something directly related to the plot that will let me establish my ‘who and where’

The Archeologist Currently Querying

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The general advice writers receive on beginnings is, ‘Begin where the story starts,’ but that shouldn’t be taken at face value. When does someone’s story really start? With their birth? With what they had for breakfast? The trick to finding good beginnings is to open it in a place where the action begins, but there are still opportunities to fit in some background information, without overloading the reader. It’s far easier to say what shouldn’t be in a beginning than what should: no unnecessary, dramatic lead-ins, no pages and pages of backstory, no mundane chapter to orient readers to your world, etc. (It really bothers me when the writer starts us off with a chapter covering an entire ordinary day, just to establish characters and their relations to each other).

I’m still a sucker for a dramatic prologue, but only if it’s relevant. Sometimes prologues are necessary to introduce a concept that the life of the main character can’t tell us about. I particularly like it when prologues consist of a legend or fable of the world that will have some impact later in the story. Ultimately the beginning should interest the reader, introduce the plot, and carefully weave in details about the world/characters/backstory in a non-intrusive way so that you can immerse yourself gently, almost without realiziing it.

The Writer Waiting on Submissions

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I’ve just started a new historical romance while waiting for the response of a potential agent.I forgot how difficult it was to write the beginning because it’s been almost three years since I started a story from scrap. So I began writing the book accordingly to what would have hooked “me” as a reader. I approached the beginning of the story–as in, the first few chapters–with the mindset that I needed to immediately build up the romantic tension between the hero and heroine. I don’t mean that they will be attracted to each other right away. But something has to be there to make readers crave to read on, to figure out whether or not the couple will end up together. Before, when I used to be active on FP, I learned what kind of first chapter worked best in hooking the reader. I knew that a new reader would come, check out the first few paragraphs, before deciding whether or not to read on. So I always spent painful hours writing and rewriting my first paragraph. Not only should the opening of a story be interesting, but in my opinion, it should also set the mood of your story. Then the closing paragraph, in my experience, is what determines how many reviews you will receive. Leave it at a cliff hanger and people will be leaving fan-crazy threats for you to update SOON or else… But if it’s not a cliff hanger, if your story loses its tension along the way, the readers might not be as eager to read on. So yes. I actually learned a lot from posting my story up on FP.

The Writer Who Got a Full Request

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I actually have a really hard time with beginnings. I find them to be more difficult than endings; they’re the most vital part of the story, too, as they’re essentially what decides whether or not a reader bothers with the rest of it, so that pressure doesn’t help at all.

I tend to begin in a spot that allows me to get started on the more interesting stuff right away, then go back and rewrite the beginning to tailor it to the rest. This is the most effective for me because I tend to meander off with ideas I didn’t originally intend when starting the work (I write in chronological order, unlike some writers that go with whatever scene they feel the urge to write at the moment). When I’m finished, I can go back and revise the beginning to catch the reader’s interest and begin setting up the basics for the polished plot.

The Writer Working At A Local Newspaper

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Like Jenn, beginnings tend to come easily for me–it’s the middles and endings that I have trouble with! I don’t know how many orphaned beginnings I have laying around. I love setting the scene and introducing characters.

For my most recent WIP, I started the story with a single sentence. I had a title, a first sentence, and a last sentence. That’s all! While I don’t necessarily recommend this kind of super spontaneous writing, I’m putting it out there just so you know that sometimes, a first-draft beginning doesn’t need tons of planning and thought. In fact, the more I think during a first draft (and by “think,” I mean stress and worry), the less I write, and the more stilted and dull the stuff I do write comes out. If you’re just starting out, don’t worry about how good your beginning is. You probably haven’t even hit your stride yet, and your story might surprise you with how it ends up. No point in stressing over a beginning that will get overhauled completely in the end anyway, right?

If you’re revising, then you can focus more on crafting the perfect beginning. The first few pages (or even paragraphs!) ought to start bringing up questions in your reader’s mind immediately. Ideally, there should be a conflict, because conflict draws and keeps attention. But of course, it shouldn’t overwhelm or confuse too deeply for too long, or they might put the book down!

Personally, I have an obsession with bringing a story full circle. I love for the end of a book to resonate or reflect the beginning. So if it’s possible, I like to work some of that in, as well. Good luck and happy writing! Really, beginnings are so much fun 😀

The Writer Just About to Query

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Do you have trouble writing beginnings?

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24 Responses to “QOTW: Writing Beginnings”

  1. Link May 28, 2010 at 12:10 AM #

    Do I have trouble with beginnings. Not exactly. I do have trouble with the very first sentence, because I know that after the cover, the title and the blurb , it’s bound to be the next thing looked at. Sometimes it’s an emotion I want to get across, or an idea. For The Severed Umbra (my second book), the opening line ended up being:
    “All I need is my shadow, and then I can grow up,” Will thought………….
    and it worked quite well. It was interesting and it got across a major idea in the story.

    • Kat Zhang May 28, 2010 at 8:23 AM #

      That’s a very intriguing first sentence! I’d certainly keep reading from that 😀

    • Vanessa May 28, 2010 at 10:06 AM #

      That’s such a great opening line!! I love when a writer is able to hook me within the first page (especially so when it’s the first line!)

  2. Caitlin May 28, 2010 at 1:43 AM #

    I suck at beginnings, so much so that it fuels my procrastination like no other. Most of my writing is done academically with a deadline and grade looming over my head, the best thing I ever learned was in English Comp class in 11th grade. We had to write so many essays that eventually I learned I just had to start writing and once I had something down, no matter how crappy it was, I could fix it. I couldn’t fix what wasn’t written though and I couldn’t just wait until I wrote the perfect beginning on the first try because I would be waiting forever.

    I think that same philosophy is what fuels NaNoWriMo participants, just get something down on the page because once it’s there you can fix it, but you can’t fix what hasn’t been written yet.

    • Kat Zhang May 28, 2010 at 10:19 AM #

      I tell myself that all the time! It’s like I can feel my inner editor looming over me, and I have to keep pushing her away so the words can even come out at all. I promise her lots of grammar nitpicking later 😛

      NaNoWriMo really taught me a lot about *just writing* first. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about getting the story out. (*then* you can worry about getting it perfect!)

    • Vanessa May 28, 2010 at 10:46 AM #

      Oh, I procrastinate too! Especially if I’m debating between multiple ways to begin my story.

      And yeah, I totally agree! Getting it written down is the best thing to do. You can always go back and fix it! Such a great point!

  3. Glaiza May 28, 2010 at 7:10 AM #

    Not really, I like writing beginnings, it’s one of the fun bits for me lol. l like beginning stories with something unusual or in the midst of something else which keeps me interested and prompts me think about why someone is hiding in a tower or drawn to something or caught in some sort of turbulent reflection. Plus, I like setting up where the character is in terms of emotion, setting, intent, etc. it helps me get a sense of what the world is like and hopefully convey that lol.

    • Vanessa May 28, 2010 at 10:50 AM #

      I think it depends for me. Some beginnings are just so clear and sure; and others are much more allusive! But I will always go back to the beginning and read it (the first scene is always so critical for me). Even if I know what my beginning should be, I will still obsess over it!

      I really love beginnings that start with something unusual or in medias res!

  4. Christina May 28, 2010 at 7:34 AM #

    I have a very hard time writing beginnings, so much so, that sometimes my ideas and stories never get written because I obsess too much over writing the beginning. I do know that I can simply re-write and revise, but for some reason I just can’t help but try to think of the best way to start out my stories and just can’t get myself to write even a rough draft.

    I’m working on one story that I feel has a lot potential but I am just caught at the beginning again. I keep thinking, “just write something, and then go back and fix it” but then I don’t do it.

    Part of it, I think is because I want to engage the reader (like a lot you said in this article, you have to “hook” them) because there were several books I read, where I was not interested but as I got farther on it got better. But for me, I want the reader to always be interested and not sit there thinking “is this going to get better?” because I think that a lot when I first read some books that aren’t interesting at the beginning.

    • Vanessa May 28, 2010 at 1:00 PM #

      Yeah, I think the beginning of books are so crucial! It’s hard to get past that sometimes.

  5. Rowenna May 28, 2010 at 9:44 AM #

    I don’t exactly have trouble–they get written 🙂 But then I revise the heck out of them, more than any other spot in the book! I think this is partially because you keep developing the characters and narrative flow as you write–so the first parts feel a little out of pace (at least to me) out of the gate.

    • Vanessa May 28, 2010 at 1:09 PM #

      That happens to me sometimes as well! I revise a lot, so I’m always going back to the beginning to edit it. But I have a bad habit of revising before I finish the story, and I really need to stop doing that!

  6. Aurora Blackguard May 28, 2010 at 10:46 AM #

    Oh, beginnings. I guess I’m the odd one out. I love writing beginnings. I analysed that part for a little while but I realised it’s because it’s when the story is fresh out of the imagination oven and still steaming and the words are already there, as compared to when I get to the actual next chapters. I realised I tend to do a lot of prologues but I love them since I discovered their use back in Std 6. I always have three things in my head: the beginning, very few, select scenes and the ending. The things in the middle never seem to come easily to me. 🙂

    • Kat Zhang May 28, 2010 at 10:52 AM #

      That’s just how it is for me!

    • jenn fitzgerald May 29, 2010 at 10:18 AM #

      it’s the same for me too! i usually don’t have much of the middle when I start writing

      • Aurora Blackguard June 1, 2010 at 2:41 AM #

        EXACTLY 🙂 big problem though because you can’t possibly have a book with only PROLOGUES!!

        * scratches chin*

        or can I? hmmm.. food for thought

  7. Marina May 28, 2010 at 2:51 PM #

    Wow, you guys, thanks for answering yet another one of my questions. I feel so honored. And what great answers indeed! None of us write the same way, and I see that some of us have trouble with different parts of the story! While I don’t have trouble writing the beginning, I always worry about whether it’s interesting enough for the readers to keep reading! I often find that my writing actually gets better towards the middle of the story, while somewhat struggles with the introduction. Thank you for all of your tips! You guys are great!

    • Kat Zhang May 30, 2010 at 7:56 PM #

      You’re welcome, Marina! You have great questions 😀

  8. Lua May 29, 2010 at 4:44 AM #

    I don’t really have trouble writing the beginnings- I do however tend to follow the golden rule; start with action. I don’t really like books where the story begins in chapter 3 so I try not to do that when I’m writing.
    The first sentences are a different story… They are nightmares! I almost always have a hard time finding the right first sentence…

    • jenn fitzgerald May 29, 2010 at 10:20 AM #

      i totally agree, while i might write the beginning of the story easily, I agonize over and rewrite the first sentence and paragraph a million times!

  9. Aly May 29, 2010 at 9:54 AM #

    Yesterday I was struggling with how to begin a short story. After a while I gave up and came here to see if there was anything new. BAM! There it was, staring me in the face. ‘Writing Beginnings’. Thanks, guys!

    • jenn fitzgerald May 29, 2010 at 10:22 AM #

      lol, what serendipity! I hope we helped 🙂

  10. svonnah June 2, 2010 at 11:47 AM #

    Wow Vanessa, great advice! I didn’t really read everyone else’s answers until now, lol.

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