One of the hardest things about starting a new writing project is just that. Where should I start? When it comes to fiction writing, there are two things that I’ve learned concerning beginnings. This isn’t rocket science, but sometimes it’s the simplest elements that can get looked over in our zeal to get started on something fresh and new. With so many bustling ideas rattling around in our heads, and us (as in me..not sure about you) being so eager to get them out and onto the paper (er..the computer) it can be easy to lose sight of all common sense and immediately start diving into our cast of fictional characters that have been mentally torturing us up until this moment when we finally sit down and give them life.
So how should this new life begin? Here’s a couple of tips.
#1 Start on the day that’s different. Someone said that to me once. I can’t, for the life of me, remember who it was, but I’ve found that it’s solid advice just the same. When starting that oh-so-important beginning, make sure you’re starting when things are about to change. Don’t make your readers wait three chapters before something happens that is different from the 360 days before it. Right out of the gate, get your audience into the thick of what the issues will be.
Let’s say your main character is a compulsive gambler. All right, that’s a problem. But he’s been a compulsive gambler for the last 15 years. Do we really want to hear about that? Nope. But today Scary Max and Intimidating Jake are coming to hunt him down because he bet on Silly Sue, the horse with great odds that lost when she suddenly realized that racing just wasn’t her ideal career goal. You see, now it’s interesting. If we spent three chapters reading about our sorry main character and all the drama he’s caused for his wife and his dog -who are both giving him the evil eye at dinner on a regular basis- and how his life is falling apart, by the time we got to Scary Max and Intimidating Jake, our anxiety level would be through the roof! That’s assuming we actually bothered to keep reading after the first chapter of depressing gambling debts that led to a second and third chapter of more of the same.
Get to the point! That is the point. I want to see our guy on his knees with his hands tied behind his back, begging for his life as he looks up into Scary Max’s face and Intimidating Jake is shoving a knife to his throat while they hiss ultimatums at him. This should be chapter one. Or possibly chapter two, if you do it right.
Ok, so now we’re on the right track. We’ve decided to start on the day that’s different. So now what? Here’s another good tip.
#2 Make your opening scene POUNCE! When I say opening scene, I mean just that. The first few lines of your story should catch my interest. If they don’t, I might just put your book down and never pick it back up. The human mind is quick to know what it likes or what it doesn’t like and so you have just a few seconds (depending on how fast the person reads) to grab their attention and entice them to keep reading.
Not long ago I bought a romance novel. Go ahead, laugh now and get it out of your system. I have actually never read a real romance novel before and so I figured I’d give it a try. I’m a romantic at heart and all of my stories tend to have romantic themes in them so I figured, how could this go wrong? After browsing through the category section at the bookstore, I finally picked one out and brought it home. You’ll think I’m a dork, but I was actually really excited to open it up and get started on it and so that’s what I did. I got a cup of coffee and sat down on the couch to be immersed into this new and exciting world. Or so I thought.
The book opened with the main character sitting alone in her kitchen. She might of watered her spice garden..I can’t remember, but either way it doesn’t matter. It was all narrative and dry narrative at that. Within the first few pages I learned about her random thoughts and what her apartment looked like. I saw her get ready for some business meeting and what the weather was like as she went to this meeting and that’s about where I stopped. I was five pages in and ready to bang my head against the wall it was so boring. Maybe the business meeting was going to be the thing that made that day different (reference tip #1) but I never got far enough to find out because the opening was so bad, I didn’t care! I had no emotional connection to her or her life and I had no concern over this meeting or what would happen. I even tried to skim through some of the pages to see if it would pick up, but even that proved to be tedious and thus, I never found out what happened at this meeting. I haven’t lost any sleep over not knowing.
So how do you avoid boring your readers into tossing your book to the side without any care over your character’s all important business meeting that will change her life? You start off with an opening scene that POUNCES!
A friend of mine is currently working on a new novel. She sent me the first chapter and asked me to look it over and give her some feedback. I already knew what would be happening in the story since she and I had talked about the plot beforehand and its characters, but first scene rules still applied. In her opening scene the main character was sitting and looking out a window and having a bit of an introspective moment. It was all narrative and although it was informative and revealed some nice things about the main character, it didn’t grab me. I felt no emotional connection or commitment to the character after reading the opening paragraph and so I advised her to change it -in accordance with rule #2.
She took my advice and sent me the revision and wow! I was absolutely elated to read what she had come up with. The new opening scene was between the main character and his dog (who was briefly mentioned in the original as a passing thought and observance by the main character as the dog slept peacefully) and I have to say it was a vast improvement. Immediately I was sucked into this playful tug-of-war game between the young man and his canine companion, complete with witty banter and cocky remarks when he had managed to win the toy from the dog. It was a great opening scene and it pulled me right into wanting to know more about the main character. I got to see him talk and interact and be playful before the seriousness of the story started. It was a far cry from the sleepy narrative that had been there originally and she did a great job of adding that key information in later that really complimented the story.
All right, so what have we learned? Start off on the day that’s different and make your opening lines count! To put it simply, GRAB PEOPLE’S ATTENTION! Don’t let your readers wander off because you’ve lost their fancy. Keep them panting and begging for more. Get them invested in your characters. Make them care. Send them to bed wondering what will happen after Intimidating Jake turns on Scary Max because he’s secretly always hated him. Leave them worrying over Silly Sue’s new career as a dancing horse for the circus. Don’t let them be mildly interested, they’ll never finish the story to find out that the wife and the dog actually hired Scary Max and Intimidating Jake to bump off the main character for the insurance money. Don’t let this happen to you. You’ve got a great story to tell, so start it off right and hook them right from the beginning.