Thursday, July 9, 2015

Writing the Book, Part Two: The Beginning

On Tuesday, I began this series with a post about getting an idea and developing it into a story. Now, let's move on to step two!
So. You have a developed idea, maybe an outline or rough plot set up, and maybe a few scenes or chapters written that will come later in the book. Now it's time to start really writing your first draft, beginning, of course, with the beginning.
The beginning of a book is the first chunk of the story where the main characters, the story world, and the conflict are introduced. This is generally the first three to four chapters, which are crucial parts of the story. If you've ever researched literary agents or had them request to see more of your work, usually they'll ask to see the first three or four chapters, or the first 50 pages. That's because the beginning chunk of a book is so important! So, let's take a look at some of the key elements of a book's beginning.


1. First sentences. I've talked about first sentences a little bit on the blog before, but honestly I don't think I could talk about them enough. They're just that important! First sentences are the first things readers see when they open chapter one of your book. If you have a boring first sentence, then odds are the reader will close your book and not look back. You don't want that!
For example, take a look at the first sentence from Kiera Cass' The Selection.
"When we got the letter in the post, my mother was ecstatic." 
I love this line. Why? Because it immediately sparks questions in my mind that I want to be answered. What letter? What did it say? Why is her mother ecstatic? The curiosity I felt was enough for me to keep reading, which then allowed me to discover a fantastic book series that remains today as one of my all-time favorite collection of stories. Your first sentence is one that needs to have power. It needs to hook the reader and make them ask questions that are too irresistible to ignore.
2. Main Characters. The beginning of a book is also where your main characters are introduced, as well as the relationship between those characters. It's extremely important to make sure your characters and dialogue are good and strong in the beginning of your book. Why? Well, think of it as meeting someone new. If they come off as too strong, too whiny, talk too much, or don't talk enough and it's awkward, are you really going to want to talk to that person again? No, you're not. And if your characters are like that, your readers won't want anything to do with them. When writing your characters for the first time, be sure to give them realistic traits as well as realistic-sounding dialogue. That being said, be careful--writing realistic dialogue does not mean including every single bit of small talk and conversation fillers that we humans use in real life. In a book, use your dialogue between characters to move the book forward and give important information rather than filling pages with, "Hi, how are you? Nice weather we're having, hmm?"
3. Settings. The beginning of the book is your chance to show your readers the awesome story world you've created, but not all at once. The setting, of course, is an important thing to describe in the beginning of a book because the reader needs to be able to envision everything as they're reading. However, don't dump the setting on the reader--sprinkle it.
For example, having a whole bunch of consecutive paragraphs just describing the place where your character lives (except in some cases) is boring and unnecessary. Rather than having a character just tell your reader where they are, show it. Make your character feel the cold shadows of buildings watching them as they walk. Have them smell the fresh, grassy breeze of a farmer's field. Then, slowly sprinkle in the setting descriptions through both external and internal dialogue.
4. Background. Another important thing in the beginning of a book that you don't want to dump on your reader is a character's background. As difficult as it can be, I promise you, you do not need to spill every bit of your character's past in the very beginning. It's not good! It's info-dumping, which is generally very frowned upon in the writing world. Instead, slowly reveal your character's past through memories, flashbacks, and dialogue. This was definitely the most painful thing for me as I wrote my first few chapters of Unperfected because I kept feeling like my audience was going to be confused. But, as I kept writing and got to the middle of the book, I got to reveal more and more of my character's past, and things that I mentioned in the beginning finally would make sense to the reader. So try to hold off on info-dumping and focus more on sprinkling.
5. Setting up the story. This is probably the most important function of a book's beginning. As you write your first few chapters and introduce your characters and story world, you should be slowly building the plot and tension. The beginning is where your main character faces a problem of sorts that they spend the rest of the book trying to solve. Let's take The Hunger Games, for example. The beginning chunk of the book (the first three chapters) begins with Katniss in her home, and ends with her and Peeta on the train. If you've read the book, then you know that throughout the first three chapters, the plot builds to set up the story. First, Katniss faces the problem of her sister being chosen in the Reaping. Next, she counters this problem by volunteering in her sister's place, which ultimately adds to the first problem because now Katniss herself must fight in the Hunger Games. By the end of chapter three, Katniss and Peeta are on their way to the Capitol and trying to process the chaos their lives have just become. The beginning of this story builds the plot and sets your character up for the rest of the story, and your beginning should do the same.

And there you have it! I don't know about you, but "beginning" doesn't look like a real word to me anymore. Check back next Tuesday for the third part of the series where I'll talk about the long and bumpy path known as the story's middle.

"Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you." Isaiah 60:1

2 comments:

  1. As a new writer, I struggled with the beginning. Rather than writing and rewriting, I worked on the subsequent scenes as I saw them in my outline. I am 30% finished and still have no opening line and chapter. A this point do I know what I want the reader to know, not generalities but specifics. Articles like this stress the importance of a beginning hook and character development, letting the reader know the genre, locale, and time frame. My first chapter is slowly coming together and will most likely benefit by more work.

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  2. Thank you so very much for this entire blog, I'm only 14 and working on what I hope to become a novel that I can someday publish, and all of this is helping me work through the first few chapters.

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