Begin at the Beginning: Writing

‘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.

Waiting for the Next Book

 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.

john green5. Keep it active and apparent.

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.

Good luck!

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.

To Question A Question- an original poem

"The Answer is Happiness...And What Was The Question?" by Anne Rosenvald
The Answer is Happiness…And What Was The Question?” by Anne Rosenvald

Can I ask this really quickly?
May I redirect your question?
Are you aware that filling questionnaires
is a sign of sure depression?
Why do you go about your days
reading personality tests?
When it would be keen to turn off your screen;
’cause don’t you know yourself the best?
Am I questioning your question?
Or simply being much too shrewd?
Is anxiety your priority?
Will you please stop me if I’m rude?
Can I ask this short and sweet now?
If your results are less than par-
will you lessen on all the questions? ‘Cause
you are just fine the way you are.

Funny, How Ironic It Is- an original poem

"The Examination of a Witch" by Thompkins H. Matteson
“The Examination of a Witch” by Thompkins H. Matteson

Funny, how ironic it is
that a fire can start at the
flick of a switch
at the snap of a spark
at the twitch of a twig

And that blaze-
how it burns with a lusting flame
how the fire consumes
oh, watch it rage

Odd, how it takes but
one pesky rumor
one curdling lie
one itching trick
to instigate a craze

Once born it rips through life
like a merciless flame
that swallows up innocents
and spits them out chafed
an anger
a fervor
a blind, spinning plate
that grows in a flash
and dies in a gaze

Funny, how ironic it is
that restless school girls
have the power to start
a war of the gods
a fight of the faith
a panic of fools

Funny, how irony has the power to kill

I wrote this abstract free-verse two years ago for an assignment on The Crucible by Arthur Miller. The play is set in 1692, Salem, Massachusetts, and is about the witch hunts (which, according to Miller, were instigated by the carelessness of a few schoolgirls).  Much like a fire can start from a measly spark, a panic can erupt with just one lie or trick. Though it’s been a while since I’ve read it, I recommend reading (or even seeing) the play to anyone.

Assuming- an original poem

"First Lady" by bayardwu
First Lady” by bayardwu

When I was first crowned in ivory
I assumed that knowledge
would come with the jewels
and the servants
and the velvet throne.
The pearl scepter they placed
in my hand
would surely wield power
and turn the tides to justice.
There was no wrong to be done
with a crown atop my head.

When I was first crowned in ivory
it didn’t once cross my mind
that simply smiling and stamping scrolls
in the back of court wasn’t enough
to preserve the peace.
Sitting upon a throne
did not render me all-knowing,
and the scepter I waved
was no more than a sumptuous stick.
There were too many arrogant thoughts to be filled
with a crown atop my head.

On The Nature Of Fiction- a set of haikus

Henry Fuseli - Woman Reading, Seated Before a Window
Henry Fuseli – Woman Reading, Seated Before a Window

Sometimes it’s painful
to think that book characters
aren’t in phone books.

Fantasy, I think,
is reality saying,
“Look how I could be.”

Books aren’t escapes;
they’re mirrors of what we know-
just more exciting.

I think that it’s cruel
how fiction has a way of
slashing my heart out.

Horizon- and original poem

"Nomad" by James Zapata
Nomad” by James Zapata

“The horizon is my
final destination,”
I said
when they asked where I
was planning to go.
“Where the earth crumbles off
in an eternal cliff,
where the sky stretches so thin
that there’s no wind to blow,
where the trees forget to stop growing
and the stars swallow the sea.
I go where time ends,
and also where it begins-
the horizon is where I flee.”
When pressed with the question
about my intentions,
I laughed and replied,
“There is no reason why.
I want to see everything
on my way to nothing,
for before I dive off the end
I must swim through the beginning.”
They deemed me a case
and snickered, “Farewell!”
as I fastened my cloak and commenced
my migration.
But I do not care; I won’t see them again,
for the horizon is my
final destination.

Alone- an original poem

"Lonely Knight" by Dumaker
Lonely Knight” by Dumaker

I batter blades in a sea of
mimics, all raging the same roar,
all singing the same steel.
“I fight for my family’s freedom,”
three hundred cry.
“I bleed for the blessing of the divines,”
six hundred more squall.
“I perish for power,”
they all moan.
I stand with my sword swinging at my side,
silent, without anything to fight for,
to bleed for,
to die for.