Everything Starts at the Beginning
This past weekend, I attended a mini-workshop at the Newport Library put on by Willamette Writers. It was a discussion by Deborah Reed about what goes in the beginning of any story. I enjoyed the discussion, and below I have added my thoughts to what she shared:
The beginning of the story is the most important part of any work. Publishers will usually ask for the first thirty pages of a manuscript. If they do not find something compelling, that will be the end of their consideration. Think about it, you only have a moment to catch a reader’s attention. If you fail to grab them immediately, they will put your book down and pick up another. A would-be publisher knows this, and they act accordingly. So what goes at the beginning?
Opening paragraph: This should probably include your main character. Yet, that certainly isn’t necessary. As a reader though, I want to know who it is I am reading about, followed closely by what is going on at that moment. In some circles, this is called the inciting incident. That thing that happened to get us emotionally involved in a character’s life. I will not drag myself through a page of descriptions about the weather, about the news on the TV or what book the character has been reading, unless of course, the action directly involves these items. For me, a story needs to get me moving with the character and the reason for the story right away. This may come from my love of short stories where the writer has no time for superfluous distractions that isn’t important. Compelling action will be much more likely to grab and keep my interest than flowery descriptions of the wallpaper, or whatever items that ultimately play no role in the story. A famous Russian writer, Anton Chekov said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Don’t waste my time on unimportant descriptors that add lots of words and little meaning.
First page: We should gain a deeper knowledge of who the main character is and what’s happened / is happening to them. We, as readers, should be sliding into the actions of your character and the dilemma they have been thrust into. Maybe his wife just died in an airplane crash. Maybe her thirteen-year-old daughter just announced she’s pregnant. Or the eight-year-old has announced she is running away from home. This situation, whatever it is, should pose some sort of question for the reader. How will the man get along without his wife? How will the mother break the news to the overbearing, anger-prone, son of a bitch she married? Who will dissuade the eight-year-old from her desire to join the circus?
First chapter: By now the reader should know the main character fairly well. Who are his friends? Who is their support group? What is going on around her? Seeds of where the story is going should have been sown within the words and actions. Maybe, the first sprouts of direction have popped up out of the ground. (This doesn’t mean those sprouts might not be trampled in the next chapter.) Momentum (action) from this opening chapter should propel us into the second, and from the second into the third, etc.