Crafting a Strong Beginning
Hey there PubCrawlers! Today I’m sharing a craft post about writing a strong beginning. As with any and all craft-oriented posts shared here by me or any of the other PubCrawl writers, keep in mind that this advice is meant to be general and certainly will not apply to all stories.
First, an apology. I’m sharing with you a three-point list I use to help me craft my story beginnings, but I no longer remember where it came from originally. I would love to credit the source, but I just can’t find it! It’s possible this came from a blog post I once read that is no longer available, or maybe I saw this in one of the numerous books I’ve read on writing, or it may even be a list I cobbled together myself. The point is, I’ve been using this for a long time—at least since I started drafting Ivory and Bone in 2013. For a long time, I’ve let the fact I can't credit the source stop me from sharing this info in a post, but I feel like it’s too good not to share. So pleeeaaase: If anyone reading this recognizes it as a list shared somewhere else, (or if it's your own!) please let me know so I can give proper credit!
When I start a new book, one of the first things I do is open up my folder “Novel-writing Tools” and copy my file titled “What the opening should have.” I save a copy of that file in the new folder, which often has little else in it but maybe a one-paragraph blurb of the story idea. Here’s what’s in my “What the opening should have” file:
A clear need in the main character that the reader will relate to
A pivotal event in the character’s life with high stakes
A mystery surrounding what’s about to happen that makes the reader curious and anxious to know what’s coming
That’s the entire document. Now, as I said in my initial disclaimer, there are probably lots of great openings that don’t contain these three things. This is a guide. It helps me craft those crucial opening scenes in a way that feels grounded and less like guesswork.
So let’s look at each item on the list.
A clear need in the MC that the reader will relate to. In the context of creating your story opening, a character's need doesn’t have to be the need that’s going to drive the whole story, but it should be the need that drives this first scene. Secondly, the idea of that need being relatable is important, since, unless this is a sequel, we won’t relate to this character at all yet. Without story context, I only have the context I bring within myself. So opening with a clear need that makes sense to the reader will give the reader something to latch onto as they step into your story.
A pivotal event in the character’s life with high stakes. Lots of writing advice talks about the normal world, the world as it is before the story begins, and the story world, which the main character inhabits once the inciting incident occurs. Many good story openings manage to ground us in the normal world so that we feel the strength of the inciting incident and what it means to the MC. Examples would be the opening of Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope, where we feel Luke’s boredom before he joins Obi-Wan, and the first Harry Potter, where we experience his life with the Dursleys before he goes to Hogwarts for the very first time.
A mystery surrounding what’s about to happen that makes the reader curious and anxious to know what’s coming. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much a sense of mystery matters to a good story. The opening is one place where that is particularly true. It’s not easy to sell a reader on your amazing character or your amazing world in a scene or two, but you can make them curious and desperate to know what’s coming. In the opening paragraph of The Hunger Games, Katniss tells us that Prim must’ve gotten in bed with her mother during the night because of bad dreams, since today is the day of the Reaping. The author doesn’t tell you what the Reaping is, because she wants you to keep reading. But we know it gave Katniss's sister nightmares, and we know it’s today. Who wouldn’t keep reading to see what’s coming?
That’s it! That’s my entire guide to writing a strong beginning. Once more I need to share my wholehearted apology for not being able to credit the source of this! Please let me know if you’ve seen this before, and where.
How do you handle beginnings? Do you introduce your story or characters in a specific way? Please share your thoughts in the comments!