In our previous posts we looked at the ways we might prepare for this moment. We considered how we might keep a journal, get ideas, grow ideas, avoid writers block and getting stuck with our story. But now, at last, we can begin! There will now follow a series of posts on beginnings which will cover deciding where to begin, what ingredients are necessary for a good beginning, the best and most useful ways to begin, what to do with all the stuff you feel you want to explain in your beginnings, where readers fit in to a beginning and where your beginning ends. We will come back to beginnings again later, when we start to explore characters.
Problem: The beginning is just the place I start, isn’t it? Is there more to it than that?
As you may have discovered to your cost, the place you start is not necessarily the true beginning of your story. That is usually buried around the second or third page. If you like to free write around your story you probably wont find your beginning in what you wrote first but later, once you had settled into writing. Most of us begin our stories ahead of where our stories should start and go on writing past the place they naturally end. Think of it as a useful, exploratory, warming up process. Much of it will be useful later, as background, but best left out of the beginning (more on that in a later post, too)
Look past the start of your story to where it may truly begin. Look for a place where the narrative picks up and there seems to be more happening, a part with more forward thrust, more power somehow. Make that your beginning and write from there.
Start with something, anything that gets you started, like ‘I want to tell you about this man who was given an allotment that he didn’t want’ or, ‘once there was a woman who went back to revisit her old house’. Complete your story from this rough start and then go back and change the beginning to include what is necessary.
To some degree where you begin will depend on the type of story you have to tell, what you want to say and how you go about telling it but that’s not helpful enough right now. The difficulty is there are no rules but there are guidelines and things to try, which can give you a feel for what is needed.
Choose a beginning from a story you have or haven’t read and use it as a start to a story of your own. When you have finished your story, go back and rewrite the beginning.
Understand what beginnings do. Take some short stories and novels off a shelf and study the beginnings. Look at the first few sentences to see how they begin. Some will seem confiding, some distant. Decide whether they make you want to read on and if so, why? Which do you like? What impressed you? Is there a relationship between the first lines and the title of the story? What information has the writer given you in just these few lines? Compare the beginnings you find in the stories to beginnings in plays, TV shows or movies you have seen recently. What are the differences? What works and doesn’t work for you? Make a list of what, in your opinion, makes a good beginning.
The opening to a successful story will have a bearing on everything that follows it. It needs to establish character setting, situation, mood and tone, provoke interest, arouse curiosity, suggest conflict and start the plot, within 200 words for a short story and within the first few pages of a novel. Daunting? Maybe just a little.
Don’t think about getting all of this right as much as about engaging your readers, (more on place of the reader in another post soon) which is not as intimidating and much more important. Your job as writer is to draw your readers away from their world and into yours. They will be wondering where they are, what’s going on and who this person is whose eyes they are looking through. You can provide answers to those questions; just enough information to prepare them for what is ahead. Think about your story and decide:
What is the story about, essentially?
Who is it about?
What is this person doing and why? (or what are these people doing and why?)
Where and when does the story take place?
Once you have the answers to these questions clear in your mind you are ready to make some important decisions that will affect the quality of your beginning.
Next Post: ‘Mighty Things (Possibly, Maybe)’ – How do I create a good beginning? Are there some useful guidelines to follow?