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Saturday, March 23, 2019
I've written about first sentences in the past, but today I want to expand the definition of the beginning to include the first few pages of a short story, or first chapter of a book. For example, when writing a story about a girl going to a dance, how far ahead of the dance do you begin? Do you start with her looking for a dress? Or begin with the tension and nervousness of a boy asking her, or her worry that she won't get asked, or getting her nails and hair done at the salon? There is no one correct way to begin, but I want to give you a few ideas that may help strengthen the beginning so no one will be able to put down your book or story.

I've read a couple short stories lately that begin long before the action, and I've also written a few that way. In the first few paragraphs or pages, I may want to explain a lot about the character, situation, or plot, and end up spoon-feeding information. I often feel the need to explain everything, like where he or she grew up, why the situation is a problem, and some background to help the reader understand what's going on, and why.

My story, The Masterpiece, begins with a child asking his grandfather about a statue in the park. The grandfather explains who the statue represents, and why, except that I stretch out the dialog back and forth between the two for several paragraphs.

Every person who has critiqued the story says I should begin closer to the action. Is the grandpa connected to the story? Why is he even there? My thought was that it would be like the beginning of the movie The Princess Bride, where Peter Falk, as the grandfather, tells the story to a very young Fred Savage, his grandchild. But unfortunately, I can't seem to pull it off like William Goldman, the master storyteller who wrote it.

I've read other books and stories with this same issue. The back story is spelled out, as if the author isn't confident enough in the writing to let the story speak for itself. I've also fallen into the trap of trying to describe a person, or everything that's happened in my protagonist's life. Long descriptions and summaries at the beginning can bore the reader, who doesn't have context. Because we don't care about this person yet, a laundry list describing someone's clothing, cars, or dilemma doesn't provide insight. If an editor is bored, he or she won't take the time to read the entire story or chapter.

Take that backstory and weave it into the first chapter, spread it out to take readers on a journey, teasing out the information a little at a time. Put some of that good stuff at the beginning. Try using an argument: A bill collector knocks on the door after your protagonist has been out of work for several weeks. She wants to pay her bills, but she can't find a job. By creating empathy or sympathy for the character through this dialogue, we are already feeling her pain, and rooting for her. And we'll probably continue reading to see how she solves the problem.

Mary Horner is a freelance writer and editor.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--We walk a fine line as writers. We don't want to do an information dump, and load up on too much background information right at the beginning, but we also want to ensure the reader is intrigued and teased along in the beginning.

I imagine you will find a way to masterfully craft your beginning to suit yourself as well as your readers. Perhaps watching The Princess Bride again will help?

Mary Horner said...

Thanks, Sioux, and I've been watching movies all weekend because I have a cold, and nothing is helping me solve the problem of how to begin that story!

Pat Wahler said...

Excellent advice, Mary. What makes a story interesting for me is finding questions for which I must keep reading to discover answers. This includes key things that happened in the character's history. In other words, don't give it all away at the beginning!

Mary Horner said...

Pat, that's great advice. I love it when everything makes sense in the end, and clues were left that you didn't know were clues when you read them at first, but by the end you say, "oh, so that's why the protagonist only had three toes!" (Or something like that.)

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