Beginnings

Ciao, SEers. I’ve got three posts left this year, so I thought it would be a good idea to write a post trilogy. What story terms break into threes better than beginnings, middles, and endings? None I could think of. So today, we’re discussing beginnings.

beginnings

You see an eye-catching cover and click on the link or pull it from the shelf. You read the back-cover copy; the blurb has everything you want in a novel—a passionate couple, a precarious situation, a tantalizing mystery to solve. Just before you decide to buy it, you take a peek at the first page.

Instead of reading a meet-cute or plunging into the action, you find a description of the weather and pages of backstory.

Thank God you saved your money.

No, this doesn’t necessarily mean the book is bad. In fact, twenty pages in, you might strike literary gold. But will you ever get there? I mean, the laundry is piling up, the dogs need walking, and you’re in the middle of a wicked good series on Netflix that will take all weekend to binge-watch. Are you going to slog your way through purple prose when you have other pressing or compelling options to choose from?

I wouldn’t. I haven’t.

Beginnings are important. There’s truth to the old adage that you can only make a first impression once. Might as well make a good one, or that reader/writer relationship will never get off the ground.

What Your Opening Needs

You don’t have many words to capture an audience. No pressure, but a killer first sentence will go a long way in getting your readers to continue far enough to learn some important details. These are things your opening pages must do, such as:

  • Introduce the main characters
  • Define the status quo
  • Present the challenge
  • Establish the tone

Yep, we’re talking about a hook (there’s that four-letter word again) and then reeling your readers in.

Your hook can be that amazing first line or it could be the inciting incident that keeps readers turning the pages. If it’s the latter, the sooner readers get to it, the more likely they are to keep reading.

Main Character Introduction

Readers need to meet the POV character(s) as soon as possible. Page one. Paragraph one. Word one.

You’re going to have a lot of characters (assuming this isn’t one huge monologue, and let’s face it, that wouldn’t really appeal to many people) and while the best friend might be excellent comic relief or the mentor wise and witty, they aren’t going to carry the story.

Readers need to see the hero and the villain as soon as possible.

  • Opening with the villain gives your audience a chance to peek behind the curtain and see what dangers are about to befall the heroes. This can be an effective way to spark interest in your story.
  • Opening with the hero lets the reader bond with him or her and immediately start to care about and relate to his or her life. If you’re writing romance, having the couple meet as soon as possible is important, and having them share most of the scenes keeps the tension up until they get their HEA. (But that’s an ending, and we’re talking about beginnings, so… moving on.)

Status Quo

It’s difficult for readers to appreciate the problem the hero is facing if they don’t know what that character’s regular day is like. Many authors start with the explosion—after all, we’ve been told to start with action, right? The problem is, we don’t know the characters yet. Are we supposed to be rooting for the guy who gets blown out the window, or is that the guy who set the explosion to begin with?

We have to establish the world before we destroy it. It doesn’t—and shouldn’t—take much. But readers need to care about the character in order to care about the story. If you take the time to show a regular Jo/Joe with a fear of fire entering an empty building, you’ll build suspense and ramp up the tension. That’s stronger than opening with a stranger’s eyes widening upon finding C4 and then… boom.

The Challenge

Status quo is clearly important for getting the reader to care about the character. But too much, and you’ve stopped setup and fallen into a backstory trap.

Instead of giving too much about the current state of affairs, you need to introduce the problem. Does the couple have an ugly history but now have to work together? Does the hero have dual conflicting goals? Does the villain hit too close to home and throw the hero for a loop?

The novel’s problem can be anything, but it can’t come late.

The Tone

This isn’t something people usually give much thought to, but it is important. It doesn’t matter how good your first line is if it’s not right for the story.

You may come up with the funniest line in the history of fiction, but if you’re writing a Holocaust drama, it’s not appropriate. You might have your heroine terrified about the world’s creepiest abandoned carnival, but if the rest of the story is a sweet beach romance, you’re off the mark.

Whatever tone you establish in the beginning is what readers will expect throughout the novel. Starting one way and then switching is like breaking a promise.

The First Line

There are plenty of ways to capture a reader’s interest. Pose a question. Offer a philosophical opinion. Reveal a poignant plot point which puts the focus on the journey. It doesn’t matter. What does is that it’s something that makes the reader move on to the next sentence, and then the next, and the next after that.

Here are some examples of opening lines that compel readers to continue:

  • Who killed you? —David Baldacci, The Fallen
  • When Ross MacLeod pulled the trigger and brought down the pheasant, he had no way of knowing he’d killed himself. And billions of others. —Nora Roberts, Year One
  • Demon was such a nasty word. —J. R. Ward, Covet
  • Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. —J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
  • When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. —Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
  • Almost everyone thought the man and the boy were father and son. —Stephen King, Salem’s Lot
  • A screaming comes across the sky. —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
  • Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984
  • It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass
  • Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
  • Mother died today. —Albert Camus, The Stranger
  • They shoot the white girl first. —Toni Morrison, Paradise
  • It was the day my grandmother exploded. —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road
  • I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
  • It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
  • “To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.” —Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
  • It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
  • Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women. —Charles Johnson, Middle Passage

In conclusion, remember you’ll never get it perfect. (Well, never say never, but you know what I mean.) Beginnings have a lot to accomplish and little time in which to get it all done. The most important thing is not to be flawless; it’s to be irresistible. As long as you get a reader to buy your book and keep turning the pages, you’ve done your job.

Do you have a favorite novel beginning? Share it below.

Staci Troilo Bio

46 thoughts on “Beginnings

  1. Great post–and reminders, Staci! And sometimes it takes a while to get that first line, first paragraph, first page just right. Or at least right enough to lure the unsuspecting reader into the story. One of my favorite first lines is from Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden in BLOOD RITES: “The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Author Inspiration and Last Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

  3. Very true about a book. I have a hard time continuing to read if I cant get into a story or worst pulled out of it. Good suggestions and examples, too. This is always the hardest part for me to write. Thanks Staci.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Beginning a book is such a challenge to most authors I know. Grabbing hold of the reader’s imagination in that first few paragraphs is our only shot at convincing them that they are in for an enjoyable reading experience. That being said the following opening paragraph didn’t really hit my x-factor zone, but I liked the promise made in the blurb. The book is possibly one of the best loved books of all time. Here’s the opener …
    … (When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt).
    From Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And yes I loved the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point, Soooz.

      I struggle with the classics. I love so many of them (not Moby Dick, but that’s another conversation for another time), but writing styles are different now. I guess we should consider ourselves lucky there wasn’t as much competition before. That’s how we got some of our beloved books. If they tried to publish now, I fear they wouldn’t be accepted.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “On the day that he would first meet Thomas Edison, Paul watched a man burn alive in the sky above Broadway.”

    When I was debating whether or not to buy The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, I looked inside to find that opening line. Wow! Grabbed me hook, line and sinker. To date, The Last Days of Night remains one of my favorite books. It goes to show how a strong opening line can capture a reader’s attention.

    I always struggle with openings, and generally end up rewriting them countless times. Recently, I picked up the the latest release by one of my favorite NYT bestselling authors. I normally love how wordy she is, but I’m SLOGGING through the beginning. 20% in and still waiting for it to pick up. I’m only sticking with it because the premise of the book is promising and because I’ve loved everything else I read by her, but–lots of yawning from me so far.

    Excellent post today, Staci!

    Liked by 2 people

    • That is a line that reaches out and grabs you. It’s great the rest of the novel lived up to the opening.

      I’m starting to find that the big names are sometimes phoning it in these days. I won’t name names, but one of my (former) favorite authors has lost me as a fan. Her last six or so books did nothing for me. I feel like she’s adding nothing but filler to her series just to make money, and it makes me even angrier because her ebooks cost so much to begin with. I hate to miss out on how the series ends, but I can’t justify the expense when there are better books out there for less money.

      And I’m like you—I redo my openings a lot. In your case, it clearly works. Your books capture me from the first word.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Staci. I always love your openings too. Maybe we are too hard on ourselves, LOL.

        It’s frustrating when those authors you go back to time and time again fall short of what you expect. I’ve had it happen several times and have abandoned several authors as a result. And yet others (Preston and Child anyone?) know how to deliver every time. Oh, to find that gold! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. This is such a relevant post, Staci. In these modern days, people are in such a rush and they need something to grab them instantly. A good example of how writing has changed over the years, I recently read “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway, and there is nothing but narrative for pages and pages before he finally gets to any action. But, that was the writing style in those days. Here’s a great opening line from one of my favorite books of all time, Jazz Baby by Beem Weeks.
    “I can’t say for certain how it is a life can so easily come apart at the seams, like a favorite old dress gone to pieces, leaving little more than a pile of worthless rags.”
    To me, that is reminiscent of Steinbeck. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Staci!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I haven’t read Jazz Baby, but that is a gripping opening line. I’m so glad you shared it.

      I was never a fan of Hemingway, but I love Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Dickens, all of whom are descriptive writers. (Everyone knows the beginning to A Tale of Two Cities, one of my favorite novels ever.) That was the style then, and in some respects, I miss that kind of writing. I love to get lost in the beauty of words. But you’re right; society wants instant gratification, and if we as writers don’t provide it, readers will look elsewhere.

      Thanks for stopping by and weighing in, Jan. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Have to admit that I’ve always had issues with the ‘hero needs to be in the first paragraph’ thing. That always feels rushed unless it’s a first person POV story. I mean, once that character is on the scene, you can’t really stray very far from them. Starting with the villain or an event that will draw the hero in feels like it creates a better foundation to me. Keep in mind that I’m talking from the fantasy genre and use prologues to do some initial world building. Maybe this is why people don’t get into the genre as often as those on Earth.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I love a prologue in fantasy. Many of the fantasy writers I edit for begin that way (often from the villain’s POV), and they work wonderfully. I think a villain’s POV starts a thriller or mystery or suspense well, too. I don’t think it would work as well with romance, though.

      But honestly, any beginning written well will work, whether it follows the rules or not.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Romance would probably be odd with a villainous beginning. Not really sure who a villain would be there. I think one reason I get twitchy when I see rules being mentioned is because there are so many readers who swear by them. It’s like there’s not allowed to be anything out of this box even if it’s nothing more than different. Hard enough promoting fantasy fiction since many see it as juvenile and trivial for adults, so this added hurdle is a major headache. Do you find the same type of mentality in mystery/thriller audiences?

        Liked by 1 person

      • A villain in a contemporary romance (no paranormal or suspense elements) could be the third person in the triangle, but I can’t imagine why a romance reader would want that POV at the beginning. It would be confusing… you’d start to bond with the wrong person then have to switch.

        I don’t swear by rules. Rules are made to be broken (provided you know why you’re breaking them and how to do so effectively).

        I don’t find that to be an issue in mystery/suspense/thriller work. To be honest, I’m surprised that happens in fantasy. There can be a juvenile component to the stories, but I find most fantasy to be wonderfully complex and mature. I’m sorry you experience that in your work.

        Like

  8. Wonderful post today. Openings are a soft spot for me. I find many of mine are more about character and do a bit of a slow burn. That’s probably not the best way in this era. I usually get some action or hook at the end of the first chapter, but that might be too late for modern readers. Looking forward to the rest of your series.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I take longer on my beginnings than any other part of my stories. Those give me the most problems. I’ve been known to rewrite them dozens of times. I’ve done the action-thing, the dialogue-thing, the slow-burn-thing. I’m not sure I’m ever really satisfied. I know the rules; I just can’t guarantee I follow them.

      Thanks, Craig.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. There are a few books that I read years ago in which the opening line still stands out in my mind. You are so right, we need to hook the reader in the first paragraph, better yet the first line. I remember hearing years ago that reading the first page of a book would tell you whether or not you’ll like it. With people’s attention spans being much shorter these days, it’s all the more important to cut the unnecessary stuff and make a great first impression.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. This was great! I’ve read many of the books you mentioned and loved every single one of them. I agree that it’s so important to make sure that you’re beginning focuses on the main character and the problem. I look forward to the next two segments. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  11. One of my favourites is a short one … ‘Pain everywhere.’ This is from Look Behind You by Sibel Hodge. I love your list of first lines, and many of my faves are on there. Am looking forward to your other two posts in this trilogy. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

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