Let’s talk beginnings

Although I am still writing and working on the first draft of RIDING THE BLIND, I recently submitted the first chapter to a critique session for review. Based on the feedback, I am working on revising the all important opening to this new novel. It has gotten me thinking about beginnings – how a work draws a reader in, how it sets up the rest of the novel in tone, voice and style.

Some authors wait until the first draft is completed to do any revising. Others revise as they write. Complete one chapter, revise it and keep moving on. The trouble I have with this approach is that I get stuck in revision and never seem to move forward. My strategy for RTB is to write each part of the novel – there will be three (I think) and revise each part as it is complete. I have taken this approach because I find the editing and revising process so involved and daunting that I hope to tackle it in sections. Revising an entire novel – from first draft stage – overwhelms me. So, I’m risking the interruption to my creative process to save me (hopefully) some stress down the road. Once this first section is pretty, I hope to feel more grounded in how I want the next section to take shape.

So, back to the beginning. What are the important elements to include in the first chapter? Here is a list that I’ve developed for myself:

1. Character – In literary fiction, this is the glue that holds a work together – the driver of the action and story arc. In the first chapter the reader needs to know who the main character is right up front, get a sense of their personality, their conflict and what the stakes are for this person. I recently critiqued the first 25 pages of a writer’s first novel. When I began to question the main character who was the focus of these pages I got a surprise. That person wasn’t the MC! This knowledge left me wondering what the story really was and how I was going to understand that right off the bat.

2. Setting – Where and when is the story taking place? Grounding the reader with this relevant information, without dumping it off in a string of boring description, is critical. There are, of course, examples of works that lack specifics and build them later as the story arc takes shapes. Perhaps a novel begins in one setting or time, never to return. Still, it is important that a reader has a frame to see the characters moving around in, talking and getting into trouble.

3. Conflict – I mentioned this under character, but it is important enough to bring up again. I love novels that open with a catalyzing incident, giving the conflict right up front. Knowing the stakes for the main character in the first 10 pages is important, otherwise you get stuck in a bunch of beautiful words that say little. No navel gazing allowed – give the reader tension, conflict, and contradictions right up front.

4. Voice – The all important voice, the element that will pull a reader through lack of conflict, confusion over character and setting. (Not that you should lack these elements at all) I’ve noticed that voice in each work takes time to ramp up and become strong. It is important to go back to the beginning of a work and make sure the voice matches what develops by the end of the work. As with anything, beginnings in writing are full of the unknown. Every beginning I’ve written requires significant fine tuning as the story blossoms out and takes shape. I want the voice, tone and description to match and mirror what is to follow.

I’m sure there are other elements important for beginnings, but these are the top four that I worry about. Beginnings are critical to laying out the groundwork for what follows in a novel. No one wants to be the writer that says, “It gets good on page 50.” It must be great on page one. Hooking the reader is no small feat. In fact, some will only give you a paragraph not even an entire chapter.

Nathan Bransford is running The 3rd Sort-of-Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge right now. This is a great exercise to see how beginnings are formed from that kernel of a first paragraph. Which ones hook you and leave you flat? Why?

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