Thursday, January 6, 2011


New Year, new beginning. We all feel it. So, much as I spoke of resolutions just last year (he he), today I'd like to talk about beginnings. In your manuscript of course.

It can be confusing, the mixed messages we receive. Mostly because the way you start your novel is so unbelievably important. It is what will catch the agent/editor's attention or conversely what will make the reader put it down. So we hear things like; start at a moment of action! But then we hear things like; I need to care about the character before I care if they're being attacked by a werewolf!

So what do you do?

1. Find the right place to start.

Knowing where your story begins will automatically draw in the reader. Not sure? Then write until you find it, go back and eliminate everything up to that point. Still unsure? Find your inciting incident. The spark that puts your plot in motion. And try it from there. Some stories start after or even slightly before the inciting incident, but typically it's a good leaping off point. Take the werewolf example above. If we started that morning and followed our MC through his normal day, we might lose some readers. But if we start at the moment of the attack..

2. Introduce your MC and give us a hint at his character.

Don't start with a minor character, we need to meet the MC right away. And I don't need to know what his favorite color is. But just a hint in the way he reacts to the situation will entice us. Here's another great example of show vs. tell. Let's use my situation above. When the werewolf attacks what is our MC's reaction? Look at the difference in the following two openings:

a. Ben froze as the werewolf lunged toward him, its massive claws tearing through his jeans and raking across the tender skin on his leg. Ben kicked out hard connecting with the werewolf's snout. He scrambled to his feet and took off running.

b. Ben froze, every hair on his arms standing on end. That couldn't be what it looked like. This had to be some kind of hallucination. Real wolves weren't six-feet-tall with blood-red eyes, and they sure as hell didn't stand on two feet. But did hallucinations growl? Or smell like rancid meat?
Ben didn't have time to keep wondering. The thing lunged, tearing right through his jeans and slicing his leg like a Turkey. Fight or flight kicked in and Ben's foot connected with its snout. Then he was up and running, adrenaline masking the pain in his calf. He was pretty sure he'd be dead by the end of the night one way or another though. Even if he managed to outrun the beast behind him, his mom was going to kill him for tearing up his brand new $100 jeans.

The first one might be exciting, but is it as strong as the second? Which one makes you care more about Ben and what happens to him?

3. Don't be tempted by the big bad info dump.

Oh you know what I'm talking about. You've spent all this time either painstakingly outlining a whole new world (or just making it up in your head) that you want to impart on the reader at your first opportunity. But don't do it!! Drip, drip, drip that info throughout in creative ways. I don't care about the unique plant life in the forest of Glurr. Not unless Ben happens to be running through it chased by a werewolf. Get it?

4. Follow the Rules. Sort of.

If you're just starting out, you have to follow the rules. Meaning: Don't start with dialogue. Don't use a ton of adverbs. Don't... well, you should spend time researching these since this isn't really what this post is about. In fact, someone should write a writer's bible of rules. One of you go do that...

The point is, sometimes rules are meant to be broken. But in order to break a rule like that in an acceptable way, and right off the bat without the agent/editor/reader dropping the manuscript in shock, you better have a really good reason.

So it wouldn't make sense for me to start the werewolf story like this:

"Don't eat me, I don't taste very good," Ben said, backing away. "Nice doggie."

It's kind of cute, but not as strong, and perhaps a bit confusing.

A good example of this rule being broken? The dialogue that starts off Charlotte's Web. "Where's Papa going with that axe?"

5. Impart as much information in the first line(s) as possible.

Finally, make sure you get as much info as you can to the reader (without info-dump) while at the same time making it exciting and building character. Ha! Easy right? :D That's the art. But the more we know from the get go, the more we are automatically invested in the story.

Let's take a look at Ben again, shall we? Poor Ben. Now assuming we go with my previous beginning, what do we know about Ben and his situation?

Well while we are pretty much inside our MC's head, we get a fairly good sensory description of the werewolf itself. We know it's menacing, and that it isn't a normal wolf. We know our MC is a guy. We know shortly thereafter that he's attacked by this thing, but has enough presence of mind to fight and try to get away. We also get that Ben is probably pretty young, maybe a young teen because he's used terminology like "sure as hell" and he's strong enough to potentially get away from a werewolf. Oh and of course because he's worried about his mom being mad about him ruining his pants. Which also gives us a hint at his character.
But what do we know about the world Ben lives in? A lot actually. We know that he lives in our world, or one pretty similar to it because he doesn't believe in werewolves. Not bad considering we haven't seen one description of Ben's surroundings yet.

What can you add about good beginnings? What would make Ben's opening even stronger?


  1. I needed this post today--I'm editing my WIP, and (like you said) first pages are SO important. Just so you know, I knew I would love this post when you said that we all hear "start at a moment of action," but some people/agents say "I need to care about the character before they get attacked by a werewolf." This is SUCH a dilemma in one of my manuscripts. It's hard to please everyone out there, but you're right--striking a balance is essential :)

  2. Great solid advice for one of the most nebulous difficult things in the world.

    Since my voice doesn't emerge until I'm a good three or four chapters into my novel, my plan is an unusual one: I'm going to try to "sneak" my first chapter in somewhere when I'm going really strong. I'm not sure if it'll work; my novel might catch on to what I'm doing. If my novel were a paranormal creature, it would be an uncontrolled genie, I think, or maybe a shapeshifter - something that you just quite get your hands on :)

  3. Great info. I had such a problem with where to start my story in my first YA ms. Thankfully, my 2nd novel has gone much smoother. The beginning paragraph is so important--thanks for the tips.

  4. I've been struggling with this exact problem lately. Writing fantasy often requires a bit of setup so the reader understands the world. However, it's so easy to do too much setup! Finding that balance is often hard.

  5. Jess - I'm so glad this was helpful to you! It can make you want to pull your hair out to hear such conflicting information. But yes, I think sneaking in clues to character during a particularly interesting moment is the way to go if in doubt.

    Margo - He he - let me know if tricking the MS works! That's pretty clever really.

    Kristi - YW and I'm glad your 2nd ms is going smoothly. The more you write the better it gets. I say that from EXPERIENCE.

    Heather - Fantasy is trickier! Especially High Fantasy. In my werewolf example I cheated a bit because it's obviously more paranormal (based in this world). But I think seeing the world through the way the character is physically experiencing it is a good way to start.

  6. I think great beginings are ones that are sprinkled with hooks that pull the reader in, making them ask questions that they feel compelled to find the answers to. :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  7. Angela - OUCH! Sprinkling with hooks sounds painful. :D But seriously, that's a very good analysis. I guess the whole issue on character is really whether or not the reader cares enough to find the answers...

  8. Great post, Lisa.

    It is sometimes hard knowing where to start. And what might be the right place to start can easily change if you ended up making major revisions to the plot. I ended up deleting the first chapter of the book I'm about to query because it no longer worked with the new premise of the book.

  9. Stina - thanks! Yes, things in any manuscript are fluid, and you have to be willing to see it, accept and go with it to make it work.

  10. Awesome post, Lisa. My suggestion to anyone stuck with writing a great beginning, is to go back to the books that you love and study how they started off with a bang. Feel their rhythm and ask yourself when and how they hooked you.

  11. My problems has always been figuring out where the story truly starts.This is a great post, thanks Lisa!

  12. Great post. I'm starting my second novel and some of these points help. I had to learn the hard way with the first one. Great post!

  13. Great post, Lisa! Beginnings are so hard and so incredibly important. I know for many of my stories, I had to be well into the book before I knew exactly where to start it. But other times, I know from the beginning. Even then, though, it has to be reworked and massaged many, many times before its suitable for public viewing.

    I think JK Rowling said she rewrote the first chapter of Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone like 10 times!

  14. I love finding great openings in books I like and figuring out why I loved them. Usually? Voice, great writing, some internals, some initial conflict. Easy. HA!

  15. Christine - I'm so glad it was helpful! Yes, we all have to learn the hard way.
    SP - It's nice to know even JK has the same issues!
    Laura - Great advice.

  16. Oh first pages....sentences...I just added something that will change the WHOLE book. Yeah, the one you looked at LOL!! I've found myself relating to so many different kind of hooks, not always the crazy-fast ones that I was trying to write in my WIP

  17. Bekah - that's great that you found the right one for your manuscript! Never give up and never stop working...

  18. Great points, all of them! I just finished reading McKee's Story and he gave a great tip on where to locate the Inciting Incident - as soon as possible, but not before you have all the information you need to understand it. This sounds hopelessly vague, but I'm finding it a great tool. I locate the Inciting Incident of my story and work backwards from there. What does my audience absolutely have to know in order to understand the ramifications of the Inciting Incident? If the answer is "nothing; it's all implied in the II," then tally-ho, we lead with the II and the story starts off with a bang. If the answer is "these three bits about the central conflict and character," then off I go to build a subplot that will deliver that in the opening, as quickly as possible, before the II.

    See? Simple (not). :)

  19. Susan - that sounds like a great book. And yes, the reason so many people struggle with this is just that, it's very complicated!! :D