Many Kinds of Beginnings
Okay, first of all let’s be clear on the purpose of this workshop, shall we?
This workshop is to teach you to do better beginnings, and of course, that means eventually you’ll start off better right from the beginning. That, however, like most things in the arts, takes a certain amount of internalizing the idea of how to begin, a certain amount of having practiced it so long it’s second nature.
I’m here to tell you that after 20 years of being published and selling most of what I write I can do it sometimes. Sometimes I type in a perfect beginning and I go in awe of myself for a few hours.
Most of the time, though? Most of the time I go on the “stick some words up there so I can start this book, I can always go back later and revise it.”
Where my knowledge of craft comes in is that revision. It’s doing first pass on a book, looking at what I have up there, and then, sometimes ploddingly, constructing a new beginning. And sometimes the GOOD beginning only hits when the book is getting typeset (Which I’m sure endears me to my publishers, yes.) An example of that is Darkship Renegades, which had a much longer, clunky beginning. That’s because a second book needs to bring the reader up to date on what went before, and that is another workshop (seriously) because it’s a tricky bit of craft.
Anyway, this workshop will give you — hopefully — the initial tools to evaluate and maybe even re-write/re-craft your beginning. If it makes you so good you begin all your books RIGHT the first time, great, but don’t count on it till you have some practice.
Now, take out your number two pencil and take notes, because there will be a test. (Wow. I miss torturing students. I just realized that.)
Anyway there are many kinds of beginnings. Honestly, there are more than I can cover in a single post. But I’m going to cover some types that have caught me in the past. Keep in mind, while you’re going over these, that certain types of beginnings are better for certain kinds of books.
I find the “Uh WHAT?” beginning tends to work better for science fiction or thrillers or something where the “Uh WHAT?” will “pay out” through the story. Though it can also work pretty well in mystery. (Which honestly can also do fairly well with an “Atmospheric” beginning or a “Cool story bro” beginning.) Fantasy tends to work very well with atmospheric, but it can do very well with “These people!” beginning. And so can Romance. What you have to remember is not to start a story with an atmospheric beginning and then have the rest of your story be as prosaic as boiled oatmeal. Don’t start a story with a “Uh WHAT?” and then have the story be completely mundane.
One of the best FAILED beginnings I ever read was when I was a reader for a small press magazine. It opened with “Marge, the stealth chickens are back again.” … and then it went on to be an attempt at magic realism, with a couple whose house had unexplained phenomena, where nothing was ever explained or solved.
I could see doing it as “The stealth chickens were back again. The office was covered in invisible feathers. You could tell by the way the muffled your steps, got up your nose and made you sneeze, or made the computers overheat. Sometimes an invisible egg broke on a keyboard — because the user didn’t see it in time — and gummed up the insides. The steady cot cot cot of well fed chickens became background music to the work day.
That morning, Bob had had enough. After getting invisible egg on the bottom of his shoe, slipping on invisible feathers and almost breaking his head, he announced, “The exorcist didn’t work. It’s time to get serious.”
From there I could take it at least five different ways from SF to Fantasy.
So, keep your genre in mind.
1- Uh… WHAT?
Beginnings often get you with the first line. Often, but not always. Sometimes it’s the second of the third line.
The only one I can remember of the top of my head — because they’re mostly used in short stories, is the one for 1984:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
That grabs right away, because even in Europe where they use military time, only digital clocks show 13. Old fashioned clocks strike 12 twice.
Another one is the classical Jim Butcher opening “The room was on fire, and it was not my fault.” It’s doubly funny for those of us who’d already “met” Harry Dresden, but it’s still a “uh, what?” because people’s normal reaction to being in a room on fire is NOT to be scared of being blamed, but to run screaming.
This kind of opening is a great trick if you are still submitting on spec to magazines. The normal magazine editor is buried under mountains of submissions. If you make him go “Uh… what?” you’ve won the first strike.
The best one I ever managed, and it sold first fling out (for an antho, as happened) was “Dying is easy. It’s staying alive afterwards that’s difficult.”
If there’s a concept in your short story or novel that lends itself to this kind of summary, use it, because it grabs.
2- Cool Story, Bro
This is more a situation or a thing that’s not quite normal, or is interesting in other ways.
The classical example for this is, of course, the opening for Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia.
On one otherwise normal Tuesday evening I had the chance to live the American dream. I was able to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from a fourteenth-story window.
Now, I didn’t just wake up that morning and decide that I was going to kill my boss with my bare hands. It really was much more complicated than that. In my life up to that point I would never have even considered something that sounded so crazy. I was just a normal guy, a working stiff. Heck, I was an accountant. It doesn’t get much more mundane than that.
That one screwed-up event changed my life. Little did I realize that turning my boss into sidewalk pizza would have so many bizarre consequences. Well, technically, he did not actually hit the sidewalk. He landed on the roof of a double-parked Lincoln Navigator, but I digress.
My name is Owen Zastava Pitt and this is my story.
It’s not your …. normal first line strange, and yeah, the second is strange but what we’re doing is going “How the hell did that happen.” And by the end of that oepning we’re going “Okay, WHAT? Cool story bro, now tell me the rest.”
3- Something’s Happening Here
This is just opening with things on the move. It seems simple. It isn’t, because you need to keep the reader interested in what’s on the move without stopping to give a long “how we got here” explanation.
The perfect opening example is Under A Graveyard Sky by John Ringo.
“AlasBabylon Q4E9,” the text read.
“Bloody hell.” And it really hadn’t started out as a bad day. Weather was crappy but at least it was Friday.
Steven John “Professor” Smith was six foot one, with sandy blond hair and a thin, wiry frame. Most people who hadn’t seen him in combat, and very few living had, considered him almost intensely laid back. Which in general was the case. It came with the background. Once you’d been dropped in the dunny, few things not of equal difficulty were worth getting upset about. Until, possibly, now.
He regarded the text from his brother and wondered if this was how morning walkers on 9/11 felt. He knew the basic code. Alas Babylon was a book about a nuclear war in the 1950s and survivors in the aftermath. The novel by Pat Frank was still one of the best looks at post-apocalyptic life ever written. And he and Tom had agreed that it was the best choice for a code indicating a real, this is no shit, general emergency. Not “I’ve got cancer” but “grab the bug-out bag and activate your Zombie Plan.” Which was why he wondered if this was the same feeling those morning New Yorkers had felt looking up at the gush of fire from the side of the Twin Towers. Disbelief, sadness, even anger. His mouth was dry, palms clammy, his sphincter was doing the bit where it was simultaneously trying to press neutronium and let go all over his seat. He felt all the cycles of grief go through him in one brief and nasty blast. Tom was not a guy to joke about the end of the world. Something had hit something or another.
Despite knowing it’d gone tits up, he hit reply.
The return message was immediate.
“Confirm, confirm, CONFIRM. Q4E9. CONFIRM!!”
The appeal should be obvious. By this time you’re in the middle of it, you might as well find out what happens next. Needless to say to open with “Cool Story Bro” the opening has to be something out of the ordinary happening. Yeah, people might get riveted by a description of someone making an omelet, but it best be a dragon egg omelet.
Another good one of these is the opening of Heinlein’s Friday (Which also has shades of “These people!”)
4 – These People!
This is when the situation is not particularly weird, the action isn’t moving at a clip, but we still want to know what These People will do next. Either because these people are inherently fascinating, or because … well, because they’re the sort of people who seem to be interesting.
I’m not going to type it in, but go read the beginning of Venetia, by Georgette Heyer. It caught me because “these people” are my type of people and that conversation could have taken place at my breakfast table, though admittedly only if I kept chickens.
And I’m sorry, I must apologize, but I’ve just figured out I don’t have They Walked Like Men by Clifford Simak in electronic. This is annoying, because it’s one of my favorite openings, but if I go downstairs to the library to look for it in physical form, I’ll get caught and not come back for at least a day. So …
Um, it opens with a tenant who just went to take his landlord to the airport. He drops his keys at the door. Because the landlord is a skinflint who uses a low wattage bulb in the hallway, the tenant has to bend down to find the keys, which is when he sees the bear trap.
This is a “Uh what?” when you hit the bear trap, but up till then (a few sentences) it’s a “These people” because well, we all have friends who are skinflints. It’s just normally it doesn’t save us from a bear trap.
Sometimes the best opening isn’t with things moving, or with the “uh, what” but, particularly for certain fantasy worlds, with an atmospheric narration of something that is inherent in the world.
Take the opening to Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett: (Typos mine, because copying manually)
The little cup of valleys, glowing in the last shreds of the evening sunlight, was the kingdom of Lancre. From its highest points, people said, you could see all the way to the rim of the world.
It was also said, although not by the people who lived in Lancre, that below the rim, where the seas thundered continuously over the edge, their home went through space on the back of four huge elephants that in turn stood on the shell of a turtle that was as big as the world.
The people of Lancre had heard of this. They thought it sounded about right. The wolrd was obviously flat, although in Lancre itself, the only truly flat places were tables, and the top of some people’s heads, and certainly turtles could shift a fair load. Elephants, by all accounts, were pretty strong too. There didn’t seem to be any major gaps in the thesis, so Lancastrians left it at that.
Of course, as some of you rules lawyers will tell me, the best of these openings partake of three or four different types. But I identified the strongest.
REALLY good openings meld all of them. Take this from Puppet Masters, by Robert A. Heinlein:
Were they truly intelligent? By themselves, that is? I don’t know and I don’t know how we can ever find out. I’m not a lab man; I’m an operator.
With the Soviets it seems certain that they did not invent anything. They simply took the communist power-for-power’s-sake and extended it without any “rotten liberal sentimentality” as the commissars put it. On the other hand, with animals they were a good deal more than animal.
(It seems strange no longer to see dogs around. When we finally come to grips with them, there will be a few million dogs to avenge. And cats. For me, one particular cat.)
If they were not truly intelligent, I hope I never live to see us tangle with anything at all like them, which is intelligent. I know who will lose. Me. You. The so-called human race.
For me it started much too early on July 12, ’07, with my phone shrilling in a frequency guaranteed to peel off the skull. I felt around my person, trying to find the thing to shut it off, then recalled that I had left it in my jacket across the room. “All right,” I growled. “I hear you. Shut off that damned noise.”
“Emergency,” a voice said in my ear. “Report in person.”
I told him what to do with his emergency. “I’m on a seventy-two hour pass.”
“Report to the Old Man,” the voice persisted, “at once.”
That was different. “Moving,” I acknowledged and sat up with a jerk that hurt my eyeballs. I found myself facing a blonde. She was sitting up, too, and staring at me round-eyed.
“Who are you talking to?” she demanded.
I stared back, recalling with difficulty that I had seen her before. “Me? Talking?” I stalled while trying to think up a good lie, then, as I came wider-awake, realized that it did not have to be a very good lie as she could not possibly have heard the other half of the conversation. The sort of phone my section uses is not standard; the audio relay was buried surgically under the skin back of my left ear-bone conduction. “Sorry, babe,” I went on. “Had a nightmare. I often talk in my sleep.”
“Sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine, now that I’m awake,” I assured her, staggering a bit as I stood up. “You go back to sleep.”
“Well, uh—” She was breathing regularly almost at once. I went into the bath, injected a quarter grain of “Gyro” in my arm, then let the vibro shake me apart for three minutes while the drug put me back together. I stepped out a new man, or at least a good mock-up of one, and got my jacket. The blonde was snoring gently.
I let my subconscious race back along its track and realized with regret that I did not owe her a damned thing, so I left her. There was nothing in the apartment to give me away, nor even to tell her who I was.
I entered our section offices through a washroom booth in MacArthur Station. You won’t find our offices in the phone lists. In fact, it does not exist. Probably I don’t exist either. All is illusion. Another route is through a little hole-in-the-wall shop with a sign reading RARE STAMPS & COINS. Don’t try that route either—they’ll try to sell you a Tu’penny Black.
Don’t try any route. I told you we didn’t exist, didn’t I?
Weirdly — did I claim to be normal — it was that last paragraph and question that grabbed me. Eh.
Okay, so tell me your very favorite opening, and what grabbed you about it/why it worked.
Next week and then in following weeks we’ll take one these (and possibly others) , one by one, and then you get to do your own opening. (I told you you you’d need your number 2 pencils and that there would be a test. No whining.)