‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, very gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’
-Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
So you’ve got your characters. A good grasp of your plot. Perhaps your mind is even wandering to the sequel. You’re all set to hit the ground running, head first into the first chapter. But then-
Perhaps even harder than the end is writing the dreaded beginning. Sometimes, it just doesn’t come naturally. You know what you want, but you don’t know how to get those pesky words on the page without overwhelming, boring, or confusing the reader.
Is there a wrong way to write a beginning?
The short answer: no.
The long answer: no, but- there are elements that characterize a good beginning that need to be taken into account.
1. Get the reader to care.
No one wants to read a story that opens with Mary Sue preparing her breakfast cereal and thinking about watering the porch plants. I’d drop that book in the heartbeat. But who knows? Maybe on the next page Mary Sue packs a hand revolver in her purse and leaves for her work at an underground drug cartel. I’d never know that, because the opening scene didn’t make me care.
Keep the reader guessing. If they’re not curious about what happens next, then you’ll never get them to flip the page.
2. Engage the reader in the world.
Basically, you’ve got to slap your setting in the reader’s face. Don’t overwhelm them, but make sure they know where the character is, because there’s nothing worse than being introduced to a well-rounded character and having no idea where the heck they are. They could be floating in space, for all the reader knew. Immerse them in the time, place, and atmosphere with sensory details and perception through the characters. Remember; show, don’t tell. It’s especially important to avoid purple prose here, because excessive adverbs and flowery, useless words are a big turn-off and distract the reader from the central conflict.
3. Make the tone known.
You have to ask yourself; what do I want the reader to feel? If your writing is light-hearted and witty, and you want the reader to feel light-hearted and witty, then by all means, make the beginning light-hearted and witty. As Alice LaPlante says in her book, “The Making of a Story“,
A common problem one sees in beginning work is that a story will begin in one vein- say, serious and realistic- and then turn to slapstick comedy, or science fiction, or some other kind of tone. Whatever the feeling you want your readers to get from the piece should be apparent from the very first sentence.
There’s nothing wrong with having a dark fantasy with comedic undertones, you just have to maintain a balance throughout your writing- and that includes the first scene.
4. Present characters and their problems.
Reader, meet my friend, character. This is his/her problem.
Introducing a character is always a big moment, for the reader and the writer, and in the opening scene, its execution is doubly important. The character has to leave an impression on the reader, even if they don’t say anything in that scene. Make the reader feel something about the character, whether it be admiration, embarrassment, anger, or pity. For main characters, hash out the basics of what their situation is/what they’re going through.
Again, this is all about getting the reader to care.
Never, never, nevereverevereverever make the opening scene a festering vat of info dump. I know I said that there’s no wrong way to start a story, but info dumps are a crime against fiction. You may have an elaborate history and rich culture designed for your world and characters, but never use the opening scene to plop it all upon the reader. It’s overwhelming and distracting. If you have backstories and origins, weave them into the plot naturally.
The opening scene should be clear and concise. The reader should know what’s happening and who’s doing what without risk of confusion. Make it enticing and exciting, but don’t drown your reader. Please. For all our sakes.
Whether you’re planting your reader right in the middle of the action or introducing them to your fictional world through a thought-out narrative, the opening is crucial to establishing your story. Don’t treat it like any other scene; give it thought, give it character, give it heart. And remember, first drafts are called ‘first drafts’ for a reason! Take a deep breath, and just write.
For all your creative writing needs, I recommend reading “The Making of a Story” by Alice LaPlante. A lot of the advice I give in this post is inspired by her insightful chapters about everything from character development to revision.