Monday, December 7, 2009

Start at the Very Beginning

In The Sound of Music, Maria sang, “Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” A very good place, indeed. The question is, when is the very beginning and how do you know?

My novel, EMBROL, has had many beginnings. Way too many, and none of them have worked. I’ve wanted them to work, have rewritten, revised, and manipulated them trying to make them work. I’ve even talked myself into believing they were working, but they were all wrong. Why were they all wrong? Because I wasn’t starting at the very beginning, at the inciting incident.

The inciting incident is the moment when the main character’s life is changed so dramatically it yanks her out of her safe, happy world (literally or figuratively) and forces her on some type of journey (physical, emotional, or a combination of the two) to try to regain that safe happiness, though that goal may change as the character grows and develops throughout the story.

I thought my readers needed time to bond with my main character. That way, they would truly feel for her when her world fell to pieces. As a result, I had all this superfluous backstory that was really bogging down my first chapter.

So, even though I love those first scenes, I hit the delete button, setting them free. Well, maybe I banished them to the word graveyard on my hard drive instead, because I can’t really set them free. What if I need them later? Yeah, that hasn’t happened yet. Still, I save everything.

Now, with only a few paragraphs (versus several pages) of set up, my first pages get straight to the major turning point in my main character’s life, hopefully pulling the reader into the story right away, accomplishing what my previous beginnings have not. And of course, the changes I’ve made have triggered other changes later in the story. It’s a vicious cycle, but that’s another post.

So, how do you know where to start your story? Do you think the reader needs time to bond with the character or is it best to get right into the action?


  1. I rewrote my beginning many, many times. I tried both approaches but in the end I went right for the action.

  2. it's hard but i think you can do both. i like to plunge my readers right into the action without much backstory. that can come later, sprinkled thru the story.

  3. I think the beginning is the hardest part and most writers re-write it many times. I tried starting in the inciting incident, in the heat of action, and got told by an agent I hadn't given the reader a chance to get to know the character first. So, it was back to the drawing board. I think the trick--and I'm not saying I've mastered it yet--is do character building within a scene of tension (not backstory) that foreshadows the crisis to come. That was a word-packed sentence but it's the best I can do. :)

  4. I like the new look. I initially started my story right in the middle of the inciting event. Every single one of my beta readers felt like it was all wrong. They didn't care about what was happening because the didn't care about my character yet, so I started the story a little earlier, but with a conflict, just not the primary one. This post has gotten me thinking about my beginning again.

  5. My best openings have always started with action. Maybe "action" is the wrong word, connoting explosions and Jason Statham (who is filming a movie scene right outside my window today, he is waaay shorter irl) chasing down badguys with his car before his heart needs to be recharged...

    No, as long as something "active" is happening, I feel like it's easier to "show" who the mc really is. Of course, the action" must introduce the premise of the book somehow, too.

    Sometimes it's easier for me to wait until the end is finished to write the beginning.

  6. I think all of the approaches can work, so long as there is some kind of important tension from the beginning. Sometimes, starting directly in the inciting incident can be overwhelming for the reader.

    I'm struggling with the beginning right now, but oh well ... I'm just gonna write through it and figure it out later :)

  7. I ended up chopping about 12 pages from the beginning of my story. The initial intro scene is good, but then it got way off topic. Thankfully, Janet Reid critiqued the first few pages and pointed that out.

    Now if I could just nail the ending.

  8. This is something I've definitely struggled with and have blogged a lot about. Beginnings are so tough. I'm still not happy with the beginning in my YA, but I ♥ my beginning in my romance. So at least i'm happy with one!

    Kidlit also has a great post on what not to do in beginnings today:

  9. I say, "jump in!" Whenever my story has felt weak or bogged down, I cut 6 months out of my character's life and jump right to the source of the conflict. Amazingly, it works better every time.

  10. For some reason our first chapter always changes like a million times when we edit. We do a lot of experimenting to figure out where the beginning actually should begin.

  11. Great post and interesting responses. I have a very tough time with openings. I like Tricia's idea of character building within a scene of tension. Sounds good to me!

    Love your new look, Abby!

  12. In one of my novels, I could never figure out where to start. That novel had a lot of flaws, and the beginning was one of them.

    In my (agented) novel, I always always knew where to start it. I wrote the first line and it has never changed. I just knew. And it starts with a walk in the park. Which sounds pretty lame, until you realize that the people doing it are breaking about five rules just being there (it's dystopian). So to me, it's not about character versus action. It's about telling the story in the proper setting to establish intrigue.

  13. I'll admit, beginnings have never been a problem for me. I just seem to know where the best place to begin is. Call it intuition. :D

    Oh and thanks for the lyrics. Now they're going to be rattling around in my head all night. ;-)

  14. Dude, I'm so proud of you! It's so hard to let go of stuff like this. You are a brave woman--KUDOS!

    Also, pretty blog!

  15. Natalie: I'm liking the action too. For today, anyway. ;)

    Michelle: With the changes I've made, I'm hoping I did both. Not always the best judge of my own stuff, though. :)

    Tricia: I tried doing that, but it wasn't working. Hopefully, this one sticks.

    Susan: Thanks! Mine doesn't start in the middle of the action, but about two minutes before everything goes wrong. Good luck on your beginning. :)

    Tere: Yeah, easier to wait until the end, and then revise it seven gazillion times and then maybe I'll get close to getting it right. ;)

    Jess: I agree that it can be overwhelming, but I'm hoping since mine doesn't start smack in the middle of everything, the reader will be eased into it a bit more. Who knows, though. Good luck with yours!

    Stephanie: You lucky girl! A crit from her would be awesome. And good for you for cutting those pages. Good luck with your ending. I've rewritten mine many times too.

    Roni: One out of two isn't bad. ;) I saw that post. Great info!

    L.T.: My book only spans about two months, so cutting six months might be just a tad overboard. ;) Just teasing. Great tip. By cutting the first part of my first chapter, I only lost a day, but I don't think I've lost anything storywise.

    LiLa: It does take a lot of experimenting. You obviously found the right point, though. :)

    MG: Thanks! And it great to know others struggle with this as well. :)

    Elana: How awesome for you! The really sad thing is how close this version is to my very first version. I tend to overthink things, making my life much harder than it needs to be.

    Stina: Sounds like you have a gift. I wish it was easy for me. And I've had "Do Re Mi" running through my head all day. :)

    Shelli: Ah, yes. The middle. Grr. ;)

    Becca: Thanks, twice! :)

  16. I think like everything in writing it depends on the story and characters. What feels right? David Eddings is a good example.

    In his Belgariad series, we spend quite a bit of time getting backstory about how Garion knows a couple of the characters. We see Garion grow through the single-digit years. There's some foreshadowing of future events that goes on here that we need. It's a little while, probably a chapter, before Garion's world is blown apart into bits.

    But it works for the overall story. Without the setup, we wouldn't be so shocked at the reveal that comes in that second chapter.

    It's all in the details. What is needed to make the story work? If you need to spend a chapter getting out some backstory so that the turning point is more impactful, then that's what has to happen.

    The opposite is true as well.

  17. I think you have to jump right into the action or you risk losing your reader. I find backstory helps me get to know my characters better so I keep it all in until the revision stage. At that point, I see what I can remove completely and what I can work into the story elsewhere.

  18. and on the deleting thing... i always save that stuff. you never know when you might need it. i still have extra stuff from my very first novel, and those words are all garbage. but they're my words and i worked hard to write them, so i'm not going to throw them out.

  19. Hi Abby! You're really preaching to the choir when it comes to struggling with beginnings. What you said about thinking your readers needed to "get to know" your characters before hitting the inciting incident resonated with me. Only now, after completing 2 (unpublished) novels, has it finally dawned on me that I have to PULL my readers in from the get go. I've just posted the first chapter of my current WIP ... I'm eager to get the brutal truth from all of you guys as to whether I'm FINALLY on the right track ...

  20. I recently realized I needed to flip events in chapters 1 and 2 to give my beginning more punch. I'm so glad I did! I started with action, but in a revealing character kind of way.