The Promise of a Good Beginning

What’s the best way to start? For many writers this choice can be daunting. But using other novels as a guide, you can find a way that will suit your story. It may even garner you some attention, if from beginning to end the fictive dream is maintained. Now, consider the following openings by a few authors whose work I greatly admire. They are used here only for reference:

I was born on the night of Samhain, when the barrier between the worlds is whisper thin and when magic, old magic, sings its heady and sweet song to anyone who cares to hear it. (Once a Witch)

Rei Ellis whispers to me as the light goes dark.
“Anna, don’t go.” (Auracle)

Tana woke up lying in a bathtub. (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown)

According to Nancy Kress, in Beginnings, Middles and Ends, “Every story makes two promises to the reader.” One is emotional and the other intellectual, “since the function of stories is to make us both feel and think.” To do this however, the writer has to engage the reader. Grab them. Hook them into the story so that nothing else matters.

Can you do the same? The three openings above highlight ways in which three separate authors have tried to do just that. Sometimes a writer can open the story with a prologue and at other times, at chapter one. Whichever method you choose, remember that every story is different, so if you opt for a prologue, use it wisely, to dispense information that is pertinent to the tale; without which the story might not make sense. Or be weighty.

Truth be told, the first opening from Once a Witch is taken from a prologue which does a lot to enhance the story, which in and of itself is quite compact. In fact, you can think of it as a story that has two parts. The first part being somewhat like Harry Potter going off to Hogwarts. But unlike JK Rowling, this author (Carolyn MacCullough) has only a few pages to catch you up on her protagonist’s past before the spinning of the tale.  How she does it? You’ll have to read the tale and find out for yourself, but the first few sentences give you a glimpse of the protagonist and lets you know what sort of story you are about to encounter. I believe without it, the story would not seem complete or fully fleshed out.

Nevertheless do remember that every story is different. And the decision to use or not use a prologue, should be taken with care, because the information introduced in a prologue should be something pertinent, that will further the reader’s understanding of the story. Something without which the reader may be confused or hesitant about undertaking the journey. For some this might even be the why of the story. Clues that will only come to life after you have accepted the challenge and agreed to delve further in for example in Shaunta Grimes’ novel, Viral Nation.
So, using a prologue can help you to create a better story, if you give the reader vital information. Do the same with your story. But make sure that whatever it is that you are telling them is just enough for where they are in the story, and that it is not a sensory overload, of too much information being introduced into the story all at once.

For other writers though the first few words of chapter one heralds a new beginning. Think of Auracle (Gina Rosati), the two lines quoted above and the first line of Taken (Erin Bowman) given below. Both of them present you with the main character (and hint at the people that they hold dear).

Today is the last day I will see my brother. (Taken)

Whenever possible, start your story either with your main character or the opposing force. And if you cannot begin with the opposition, then use some other minor link to it, that shows the reader what’s at stake. If you can help it, don’t wait.

Because part of what will make you a good writer, is your ability to convey emotion to your reader. To get them interested in what is going to happen to your protagonist. But to do that you will have to make them care about who your protagonist is and then eventually what he is up against. Think of Guy Montag in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Part 1.
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flickered the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

And then, another part of what it takes to be a good writer is to be a good reader. Use emotion but make sure that what you present is believable. Take your readers on an emotional journey and remember to make your opening words count, like Mr. Bradbury. Or even with the two pieces below:

An icy wind seeped through the floorboards and I shivered, pulling my gray wool sweater tighter around myself. (Blackberry Winter – Sarah Jio)

I felt it coming this time. I shoved my drawings into the hidden slit I’d made in the back of my mattress, then grabbed the metal bed frame to steady myself as my brain suddenly jolted back into connection with the Link. (Glitch – Heather Anastasiu)

Although I have focused mostly on first person point-of-view stories, such openings can work no matter which person or perspective you choose. Reel your reader in. Start strong and make every word count. A strong beginning sentence, paragraph, chapter or prologue if well done can be enough to entice your reader and get them to dive in. How? Let them see your main character doing something. Or familiarize them with the story world and your opponent. Take it one step at a time, if you are a beginner or still learning some of the techniques. But make sure every word counts and whatever is said, is meant.

And until next time, keep reading, writing and blogging!

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