Monday, March 15, 2010

Great Beginnings

We’re often told our stories need to open with a bang. If our editors/agents/readers aren’t hooked by the first page, even the first sentence, we’re doomed. They’ll yawn, close the book, and find something else that tickles their fancy.

So what makes a great opening? Here are a few ingredients for a great beginning:

1. The Characters. We immediately need one or more characters to focus on. We want them to be interesting and unique. Right from the start we want to get to know them, and get to know what’s motivating them. We want to cheer for them and to like them.

Here’s an example from Jo Beverley’s “Deirdre and Don Juan”. Lord Everdon, or Don Juan, receives a disturbing letter. Here’s the opening line:

“The news of his wife’s death caught the Earl of Everdon in his mistress’s bed.”

Well, that made me sit up and pay attention! But why should I like an adulterer? Because in the page and a half of this first scene, Ms. Beverley skillfully turns around that first sentence and makes Everdon a sympathetic character, one we immediately begin to care about. It turns out his wife abandoned him ten years ago, shortly after their marriage, and he knows that he will now have to marry and produce an heir. We can sense his terror at being abandoned again by a second wife: “Then Mark Juan Carlos Renfrew, Earl of Everdon and lord of a score of minor properties, walked through the streets of Mayfair feeling vulnerable for the first time in his adult life.” When I read that, my heart went out to the dashing Earl.

2. The Conflict. The reader has to get a hint from the very beginning what the conflict is going to be. Something is not going the way the character had expected. In the above story the conflict hinted at is Everdon’s search for bride number two when he’s still scarred from his marriage to bride number one. Here’s another example of a hint of conflict in the first line:

“The first item Dax found was a red bikini top”-- The Drop-In Bride by Margaret St. George, Harlequin American Romance.

I’m intrigued immediately by the first line. When we read on we find that Dax is a famous author trying to write his next best seller on a private island in the Caribbean, but the writing is not going well. And then he finds a beautiful woman washed up on his beach. So we know from the start that the conflict is going to involve Dax’s writer’s block and this mysterious woman.

Nancy Kress, in “Beginnnings, Middles and Ends” by Writer’s Digest Books, says that the problem or conflict is related to change. Something changes from the beginning of the scene to the end. Here are some possibilities from Ms. Kress:

- A character discovers that the task he is starting is more complicated than he’d hoped.
- A character learns a disturbing piece of information.
- A character arrives someplace new.
- A character meets someone who will significantly alter his life; even in the first scene this new person has begun to change the characters immediate goals or ideas.
- An event occurs – a murder, an alien landing, a letter arriving – that will lead to significant change. This change is hinted at in the first scene.

3. The Tone. The opening sets the tone for the rest of the book. If the book is to be a thriller, it wouldn’t open with slapstick humor. The writer makes a promise at the beginning that the story will continue in the same way for the rest of the book. Here’s the opening from Jennifer Crusie’s book, “Fast Women”:

“The man behind the cluttered desk looked like the devil, and Nell Dysart figured that was par for her course since she’d been going to hell for a year and a half anyway. Meeting Gabriel McKenna just meant she’d arrived.”

With this opening Ms. Crusie promises that the tone of the book will be humorous. She delivers in the rest of the scene. Nell is newly divorced, and unemployed, having just been dumped by her husband who was also her boss. She is desperate for a job. She’s also so nervous that she manages to make a hole in the carpet, destroy a window blind, and break both a window and chair before she leaves. The book promises to be a hoot.

4. The Setup. The beginning also sets up the rest of the book and gets the plot in motion. It immediately orients us in the time and place of the story, and presents us with the problem our character is facing. The decision the character makes at the beginning of the story affects the rest of the book.

5. The Details. Nancy Kress says that to be noticed by agents and editors your work has to stand out. The beginning needs specific details. The example she uses is this: “Don’t say Mary was an animal lover. Say that every evening Mary fed her 80 pound Labrador Retriever the best part of what should have been John’s steak.” These details tell us so much more about Mary and her attitude not only to the dog, but to John. Details will also help convince an editor you know what you’re talking about.

6. The Backstory. I know it’s tempting, but don’t load your beginning with tons of backstory. You may know that when your character was twelve his father ran away, leaving the hero with abandonment issues, but please don’t give us all this detail in the beginning. Keep us guessing, keep us asking questions. Just give enough information to let us keep on reading.

Do you like to write beginnings? What is the hardest part of a beginning for you? Do you have any favorite opening lines that you’d like to share, either from your own work or from a favorite author?


Beth Caudill said...

Great post. I'm currently stuck in my first chapter of this rewrite. I hope to eventually be able to accomplish some of the items on this list.

Janet said...

No! I don't like writing beginnings! My first draft, my second draft, my third draft all suffer from too much telling and not enough showing. And don't get me started on the backstory I insist on dumping into those first vital pages.

This is a great post as I look at reworking Lady Bells. Thanks, Jana, for the important factors I need to keep in mind. Now, off to try and follow all those great tips and make THIS rewrite the best!

Karyn Good said...

Thanks for the Great Beginnings ingredient list, Jana. I'll definitely refer back to your post as I go about revising, Complicated.

I love the first lines you selected. I can't remember any specific first lines off the top of my head, but one of my favorite authors, Tara Janzen, has great first lines

Jana Richards said...

Hi Beth,
Thanks for stopping by. Perhaps it would be helpful to ask yourself what changes from the beginning of the opening scene to the end. Maybe it will help to concentrate on that change, that catalyst, that sets the story in motion. How does your character feel about accepting this "call to action"? Is he reluctant or enthusiastic?

Just a few thoughts. Good luck getting ustuck.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
Beginnings can be very tricky. There is so much information that the reader needs to know. Just not right away.

I love the sayings from Victoria Bylin, our guest blogger this past Saturday. One of her favorites is RUE - Resit the Urge to Explain. Talk about words to live by! I have a tendency to make a point, often in the the conversation of my characters, and then restate the point again in narrative, just in case the reader didn't get it. If you do it right, readers will "get" it. Give them a little credit.

I happen to think your openings are pretty damn good. I love Lady Bells!


Mary Ricksen said...

The beginnings are easy for me, It's the rest that's hard! (grin)

Jana Richards said...

Hey Karyn,
One of my favorite opening lines is "The shark was dusty."

It comes from a Superromance by Bethany Campbell called "The Guardian". It catches a reader's attention because it's so odd. (For anyone who wants to know, the hero is talking on the phone in the opening scene to a friend who is trying to convince him to help a woman who is being stalked. The hero doesn't want to get involved anymore. He stares at the stuffed shark mounted over his sofa and thinks it looks dusty. He just doesn't want to think about being responsible for someone's life again.)


Jana Richards said...

Hi Mary,

The beginnings are easy for me, It's the rest that's hard! (grin)

Ain't it the truth, sister! I can usually whip through the first 3 chapters or so, and then I come to grinding, screeching halt. Middles are murder for me.

Thanks for stopping by.


Helena said...

What a great post, Jana! Helpful as all get out -- it reminds me I must get back to all those unfinished stories, as I try to climb out of the deep slump I have been in post-February. (I still seem to be recovering from my time with my grandchildren, the Olympics on TV, travel, etc. Plus, count them, five meetings of five different groups since the 5th of March!) And the first thing I heard on the radio today was 'Beware the ides of March.' I wonder what's in store for me today.

Sorry to ramble. Your list of what to do and what to avoid in writing beginnings cast me (mentally, at least) right into revision mode on two of my major wips. So, thank you for the boost. Today was to be the first day of my renewed burst of energy, so what a good start!

Debra St. John said...

Fabulous post. That beginning is oh so important.

Thanks for the tips and examples. This one's a keeper. I'm sending it the printer right now.

Celia Yeary said...

JANA--Oh, such a difficult lesson learned! I was the world's worst backstory-teller-explainer. Not that I'm now an expert, but I have learned a few things. Many of those things came from a tiny blue book titled HOOKED, by Les Edgerton--he has lots of tiny blue books on various writing topics. Some time ago, one of the TWRP authors copied the first line of ten author's novels, and asked people to vote. I didn't know she had mine in there until she e-mailed to say I'd won. What did I win? Well, nothing--just something for me to tell. The line, from All My Hopes and Dreams: "If I'd known running away would be this hot and this dirty, I would have stayed home." Thanks for the reminder about working on our openings. Celia

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
If my blog got you in the mood for revisions that's great! Nose to the grindstone, and all that.

I know how you feel about the February slump. I was going great guns for a while in January, then work committments sidetracked me at the beginning of February. But I got my second wind and I was able to finish my Blue Diamond story. So I'm off to complete edits and submit before Mar. 31. Wish me luck!

I'll have to take a look at my own opening to see if it has enough snap, crackle and pop.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Debra,
I'm glad you found the blog helpful. I hope you come back in a couple of weeks when I tackle Endings, and ask the question, why do some novels end with a whimper rather than a bang?


Jana Richards said...

Hi Celia,

If I'd known running away would be this hot and this dirty, I would have stayed home.

What a great opening line! No wonder you won. I like that it throws us immediately into the action and poses story questions. What or who is she running away from? Where is she going? Why is she so hot and dirty? Great job!


Cate Masters said...

Excellent post, Jana. Writing great hooks are difficult. Not just great beginnings, but starting at the right point in the story. It's best to jump ahead to the point of conflict, and weave in the backstory later, as you said.

Margaret Tanner said...

Great post and terrific advice.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Cate,
Welcome to the prairies!. Glad you could join us.

You make a very good point. It's crucial to start a story at the right point, preferably right where the action starts, or at the moment of change. I've been guilty of starting a story too early, mainly because I wanted to get all that great backstory in!


Jana Richards said...

Thanks for stopping by, Margaret.


Joanne Brothwell said...

Great post Jana. I have also been guilty of too much backstory and and boring beginnings. Very helpful information, thanks.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Joanne,
A method you might employ to check for excessive backstory is to reread the beginning of your first draft after a little time away from it. Every time you read some narrative or internal monologue (because that's where backstory usually happens)ask yourself "Does the reader need this here? Is there a way I can slip in this information later?" You want to give hints of the backstory. You don't want to make the whole story about the backstory.

Silver James said...

Sorry I'm so late getting around the blogosphere today! I hate first lines. Writing them, that is. When I get lucky and get a good one, I jump up and down for joy. Usually, I have to fight, scribble out, pace...that whole blood, sweat, and tears scenario.

As for memorable first lines, I always think of one Mary Stewart wrote in THE MOONSPINNERS: "It was the egret, flying out of the lemon-grove, that started it."

Great topic, Jana!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thank you, Jana. I appreciate the examples you give with the explanations. Another post to copy and file. :)

Jana Richards said...

You're very welcome Anita. I hope you can use the info.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Silver,
When I was writing this, I went through a lot of the books on my shelf. Not all of them had first lines that knocked my socks off. Which indicates to me that a) first lines are really hard to write and b) maybe not every book needs a zinger of an opening line. Maybe some need a gentler, more thoughtful opening. As long as the opening scene does a good job of introducing the characters, setting the scene, and getting the conflict in motion without too much backstory, it's a winning opening. But I've got to tell you I do love those opening line zingers!

Mary Stewart was a fabulous writer. I haven't read one of her books in years, but they were awesome.


Gail Pallotta said...

Hi Jana,
I'm a day late, but I loved your blog about beginnings. There are lots of good tips to remember.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Gail,
I'm glad you dropped by even if you were a day late. I'm always playing catch-up on emails and blogs so I'm often late myself.

I hope there is some information here you can use.