We’ve heard it all before: begin at the action, hook in the reader, foreshadow x, and yadda yadda yadda. And I’ve been giving this some thought lately. What makes a good beginning? I don’t know about you guys, but for me, the beginning of my book Vicissitude: Lost Earth was one of the hardest parts of the book to write. Endings are easy. Usually, I can imagine endings long before I even write the beginning. But a beginning is harder for a few reasons:
- You have to hook the reader in the first place
- You have to set the tone in the book
- You have to set up/establish everything (plot, genre, characters, story problem, etc)
So, a beginning has a lot of work on its plate. And if that didn’t make things worse, beginnings are tend to be more up in the air, aka, you can begin in an infinite number of ways without upsetting the ending too much. This infiniteness can make it a nightmare to settle down and pick one, so here are some guides to hopefully help that decision become easier.
1. Does the reader have a reason to care?
No reason to care= no reason to read. Case closed.
This is why the general advice for beginnings is to begin “medias res” aka in the middle of the action. It’s an easy-attention mechanism. Although it’s well-meaning, I’d give this piece of advice a wide berth because though it fits for those of us in action-heavy and faster-paced genres, what if you’re writing a gentler genre like a romance, christian fiction, or children’s fiction? Sure a super flashy car chase scene is fun and attention-getting, but it’s not always appropriate.
So in this case, it’s a little better to instead ask yourself, why would the reader want to keep reading? If you’re looking over your WIP and you can’t find a reason, then you’re in big trouble. It doesn’t have to be a huge life-endangering reason, but there has to be a reason.
But also consider this when you look over your beginning: that’s what people are going to see when they open your book preview in Amazon, or whatever store your book is in. If you would skip an author for doing the same kind of tricks that you do in your beginning, it’s probably not a good idea to start there.
2. Does the reader even have enough context to have a reason to care?
Here’s the biggest reason why I don’t always agree with media res. If you start a story with two people arguing, an army going to war, or in the middle of battle, and the reader is struggling to understand what’s going on, then there’s a problem. The last thing a reader should be feeling is confused or that your story started too late.
In my opinion, the only element in a story that can “start” too late or chopped in half is a character. We readers understand that characters are not 100% perfect people and will falter and stumble. But a story beginning isn’t a person and it can’t be heavily flawed or chopped in half or feel incomplete. Unless maybe you’re writing a mystery, but even mysteries need context.
The context part is important because we readers use this context to know what’s good or bad in your story world. If we don’t know that, then how do we know who to root for? How do we even recognize that your character is in any danger? This especially goes for a sci-fi and fantasy book where there is a whole new story world that we have to get acquainted with.
3. Do You Need A Flashback?
Now let me start off by saying, I’m not talking about scenes that specifically happen in the past, but are told as if they are the present of the story. For example, Warriors Into The Wild by Erin Hunter begins with a battle that happens in the past, but you don’t know this until you actually get to the next chapter or so. These are fine in my opinion because they’re still happening chronologically.
But the problem, I’m talking about is when you start a story in the present, but you need a flashback to explain something that is happening currently, maybe consider starting a little earlier. Maybe even consider starting with the flashback itself and write that in real time.
A good beginning is like riding a bike and flashbacks are like training. When you’re a little kid, and you’re barely learning, you get training wheels because you don’t know how to keep your balance on your bike. But if you know how to keep your balance, training wheels are kind of pointless. Not to mention, they make your bike heavier to pick up, and you have more unnecessary parts that can bash and get stuck on other things.
Same with stories. If you know how to write well, you don’t need bulky flashbacks to weigh your beginning down. In the middle and towards the end, sure maybe we’ll want them/
But of course, don’t forget that every story is different and every writer is different. A flashback might be appropriate for you, but use it wisely. Everything has it’s place, but the only way to find that out for sure is to write it out and test it. 🙂