The Right Beginning In The Right Place

Sorry I’m so late with this.  I’m on prednisone (not for the first time, but it’s stronger this time) which means I have to watch every word because they twist around in unpredictable ways.  For instance elsewhere instead of unscented deodorizer, I found myself typing deodorized unscenter.  It kind of works, but dear lord. You read it here first, Prednisone makes you alien.

So I promised to bring my posts on beginning a story to point with a general “how to start this type of story.”First, the obvious “Start the story the way it needs to be started.”

Stop looking at me funny.  It’s the actual truth.  Even if I do understand if you’re all tied up at the beginning and aren’t sure how to get into this world or worse, how to lead people into this world and make them see all the important things in it.

Well, I can’t remove that fear or that problem.  It’s one of my personal demons, and all I can do is fight it day by day, though I can give you some principles to help you, maybe, be more sure of what you do.

However, if you’re wondering right now what kind of beginning to have for your novel, all I can say is make sure the tones match and the emphasis.

For instance a “These people” beginning is most effective if you are writing a “these people” book, that is one in which the emphasis is on the character, the character’s development, the character becoming able to do things.

A “Something’s happening here” is best for one in which the emphasis is on the setting.  Etc.

However, these aren’t rules, they’re suggestions.  For instance, I can’t even tell you that if you’re writing a seriously poetic story you must use The Atmospheric.  I’ve seen very straightforward novels starting with a virtuoso language performance and then, jarringly, going to the straightforward, which makes the reader pay attention.

Vice versa works pretty well too.

In the end you have to think about it and think about where you want to put the emphasis at the beginning.  To an extent the first three pages of your book set the tone.  It’s like the beginning musical bars of a song that tell you whether you’re going to be boogieing down the with music, or just sitting down and crying.

So make sure you put the emphasis on the right things, and where the novel is going.  For instance my shifters tends to start with “Something happening here” because in the end it comes down to “this town is weird” even though the plots are very character-centered.

Heinlein starts Friday with a beautiful bit of world building hid in a “This People” (though it’s also a something’s happening) because Friday is the center and pivot of everything that happens.  It’s a weird, sideways coming of age.  Her willingness to kill zu befel changes during the novel and in the end is the solution to her travails.

Your novels can combine beginnings, too.

What you have to do is correctly foreshadow what’s ahead.

So, first, what job does your beginning need to accomplish?

1- It must grab the reader

2- It must hint what kind of a book this is.  Yes, you can start a romance with a horror beginning, but by page three you should have redirected that to some extent, or the readers who’ll keep reading will throw the book against the wall when they realize they’ve been had.

3- You must introduce the reader to your world.  Yes, even if it’s our world, it will be subtly different, the way you see it, the way your characters live it, than the world in your reader’s head.  It’s harder for historical or science fiction, of course.  You must cue the reader to where, when, how things are, who is involved, and then take them on the ride.

Shaking yet?

I often am.  I hate beginnings.  A trick that might help you and which some of my books have allowed — others require I have the voice absolutely right before I start — is to write the book, THEN come back and do the beginning.  It works, when nothing else will.

Another thing that works is to play chess with yourself.  Write the beginning.  Let it sit.  Come back and look at it again.

Some things to watch for

1- Do you start with your favorite scene/character even though they will be incomprehensible to a stranger?  Consider cutting that, and starting elsewhere.

2- Do you start with the most effective character to introduce the world to your readers?  Unless it’s first person, there’s no reason you can’t start with a fascinating but disposable character.  For instance, Diamond Age starts with a character who dies at the end of chapter one.  He’s the protagonist’s father, and the one who can show the world best, though. And if he’d started with the protag, who is at the time a kid, the book would get tossed into YA despite that making no sense.

3- Make sure you’re not flooding the reader with uneeded information.  Visualize it as your reader opening his eyes in a strange world.  Give him what he needs to know where the walls are, and what is the floor and what is the ceiling, metaphorically.  Don’t go on and on about the wall paper, still metaphorically.  Introduce the information before needed, but don’t give it all in the beginning.  Oh, and Heinlein, don’t infodump.

4- Make sure you’re giving the reader the info they do need.  Say your character is standard human but has wings.  Cue us onto that early on.  Don’t give us a talk about him walking, or how his hand hurts and suddenly, BOOM, wings.  Talk about him straightening a feather or something early enough on.

And that’s it.  In the end you’re on your own.  Beginnings are tough.  And when you overthink them they come out stilted, and then people don’t read past them.

So, in a way I’m telling you not to think of the blue monkey.  It’s a zen thing.

But it can be done.  It has been done.  You can do it.

Now go do it.





  1. Hmmm, think I have to rework a novel beginning again. More telegraphing story type than anything else. Will work on it this weekend after things settle down.

  2. I’d love it if you would add the links to the earlier posts at the end of this one. That way I can easily review all of your excellent guidance at once! 🙂

  3. I’ve been struggling with how to start a particular book idea…and recently I’ve come to the conclusion that I simply need to start with all the little backstories, etc of the two main characters, and I’ll figure out where to start the *actual* novel once I get that down.

    (Of course, this presumes I’m going to have the desire/spare time/will to even attempt to start writing again, sigh.)

  4. “You read it here first, Prednisone makes you alien.”

    I’m sorry to hear that. I suppose the medication excuses your failure to use the new term “undocumented person of offworld origin.” 😉

    1. “You read it here first, Prednisone makes you alien.”

      Know that feeling, I do. Crazy make you, it must.

      Okay, now that I’ve driven Yoda out of my head (again). Prednisone, especially in higher doses, can make you feel really weird. When combined with hydrocodone (don’t do it, if you can help it), it’s even worse. Some of the most off the wall story ideas I’ve come up with have hit me while under that combination of meds. After sober review (aka when *I’m* sober again) and with my wife’s help, I tend to toss most of them out as unworkable … for me. Of course, her comment of, “Just WHAT were you smoking?” kind of proved that a particular idea wasn’t going to fly. Think neon green starfish in a squid-shaped ship flying through outer space. The idea went downhill from there.

      1. Fernandez thought he was hallucinating when he first saw the neon green starfish riding a glowing purple squid across the star-spangled blackness of outer space. But even after washing his face and a shot of caffeinated soda, they were still there. They were even waving their tentacles at him! What the heck?

        Oh. Wait a minute. The radar showed that the squid actually was a more-or-less ordinary metallic structure, even if the shape and glowing color weren’t what anyone would usually use. On the other hand, the starfish actually were hanging on the outside, gleefully wiggling in vacuum.

        (to be continued?)

        1. I’d read it. Feels like a surrealistic, psychedelic, Hitchhiker story. Maybe a comedic satire? If you wanna make it serious, the Bad Guys are sending Bad Juju inside a impossible to science out Trojan Horse, and the starfish are automatons/bioengineered distractions?

      2. Have them encounter the hot all-female crew of an Earth ship, you’ll have a best-selling book that will put you kids through college. Not that you’ll want to tell them….

          1. And whattya got against cheesy 50’s sci-fi movies? We just had a Hollywood blockbuster where the main character came for a freakin’ ISLAND of women, so what’s wrong with a measly ol’ spaceship of ’em?

            1. Oh, nothing’s wrong with it. I actually like cheesy Sci-fi movies (if all decades). My wife on the other hand … let’s just say, since she hasn’t divorced or killed me yet, the woman is a SAINT.

        1. Gah. Fingers aren’t supposed to supply editing on their own.

          The rest should have read: I think I can work it now. Thanks for the assist.

  5. In the beginning, was the page. And the page was without words and void; and blankness lay upon the face of the page. And the cursor of the author moved across the face of the blankness.
    The author said, “Let there be words”. And words appeared upon the page.
    And the author saw the words, and knew that they were crap.

      1. Of course.
        😉 Otherwise, how would I know that it’s the yawning abyss between establishing the characters, setting, problem, and reaching the resolution that truly fills me with dread.

  6. Officer Jamie Macbeth adjusted the side strap and wondered if anyone in the history of the department had ever tried to fit a canine bulletproof vest onto a prairie dog. Probably not, and it was the sort of question that got people sent to Psych Eval for an interview. “How’s that?”

    “Tis nae perfect,” Angus said walking around the room, standing up, sitting, then walking some more. “But ‘twill do, ‘twill serve.” Little bits of his stomach hung out, but Jamie didn’t think trying to stuff the roll back under the vest would work. “So, what now, Boss?”

    [The WIP is a “These People” and event book. Urban fantasy.]

      1. Ain’t normal!

        Well, not being normal isn’t a problem.

        It’s a problem if you’re below normal. 😉

        Now I’m not normal but I’m greatly above the Norm! Hey! Get that pin away from my head! 😈 😈 😈 😈

        1. While some have claimed I am above the norm(al) and others have claimed I must be below, I suspect that I am more in quadrature with normality than anything.

  7. I dunno, Sarah – I love doing beginnings, and they’re an easy part of it for me. The ending is usually pretty easy too … just those tiresome bits in the middle which are a chore! But then, I guess that I am truly an Odd…

  8. “Start the story where it needs to be started” can be helped by “what is the latest point at which I can start this?” That doesn’t mean that’s where you start it, of course, but if your issue is that your beginning feels like an info-dump, it can help you get a handle on things.

  9. Raina stepped out of the starport’s terminal, hoping for bright blue skies and uncanned air, and found a crowd pushing and shoving back toward the doors, against the flow of outbound travelers. Humid air hit her like the wall of jostling unhappy humanity, full of yelling and an acrid stench that tore at her mouth and nose – something was burning that shouldn’t be, and nearby.

    There was still space to move along the wall, as the travelers, guards, and some very unhappy people all piled up at the road, and Raina headed away from the scrum looking for her bus. It was, thankfully, near the head of the chaotic merger of people and vehicles that no port ever seemed to get right, and she joined the queue. The short, stocky man who made it just in front of her was still sucking wind and holding one hand to his side under his suit jacket when the tour guide looked at the list and frowned. “Your name, sir?”

    “How much for the tour? I heard it’s a good one.” He jerked his head back at the screaming, or maybe the terminal, and the guide nodded and lowered his voice to a mutter that was nearly inaudible above the approaching sirens.

    “Two kilomarks for the full tour, or fifty if you just need the ride to town.” The guide held out a hand, and the gentleman in front of her pulled his hand out from under his jacket with cash already folded in his palm. They shook.

    “Deal.” They smiled at each other, and Raina noted the guide didn’t break eye contact as his fingers riffled through the cash to quickly count it before tucking it away in a pocket.

    “Welcome to Freeport Tours, sir. Stow your luggage under your seat, ah, 23B and we’ll be off shortly.” The guide turned to her, and glanced back down at his list. “Your name, ma’am?”

    Reviews on the last one said that I don’t provide enough infodump, or context, so I’m working on adding more in.Not sure I’ve got it yet.

    1. Good dialogue. Decent beginning, in terms of orienting the reader toward the setting while making things happen. Apparent you put some effort into it.

      Perhaps consider:
      1. Is there a reason to hide Raina’s scene or story goal from the reader at the beginning? Why is she there on the planet and where is she trying to get to on the bus? Even one sentence or paragraph hinting at a goal might make the reader more invested in the story to see what happens.
      2. It might be better, assuming Raina is the Protagonist, if she Protag’d more from the start. She seems to spend 5/7s of the opening watching other people do stuff. This may not fit your desired story, but for example, what if she were the one needing to negotiate with the bus driver?
      3. What’s the conflict for the scene, Rain trying to get somewhere? If so, what is preventing her from accomplishing her goal?
      4. Raina is female, doesn’t like crowds and thinks of them as unhappy. That’s the only information I got about her character. If she is the POV character, how could your descriptions of what’s around and what’s going on also communicate her opinions to the reader? Where’s her voice? For example, consider the differences between “something was burning that shouldn’t be, and nearby. Typical frontier world, not even decent sanitation.” vs. “something was burning that shouldn’t be, and nearby. Reminded her of her home world, her neighbors couldn’t afford real sanitation there either.” vs. “something was burning that shouldn’t be, and nearby. Unless she could find her bus quickly, her lungs were likely to collapse from the trashy air particles the natives took for granted.”, etc… In other words, her POV could use a more distinct attitude/opinions about things.

      Hope you glean something helpful from that. Openings are tough, as there is so much to do and cram into them at the same time.

  10. My short story Terror Tree starts thus…

    Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is a story of one Mark Drei, one of many stories from the last war. Call us he, she, or it, but we’re all hash three. Enigmas who are one and the same, yet each iteration manages to be separate and unique. But I was the first one to emerge. That day marked the end of the old world, and the beginning of a new one. This is my story. The long and the short of it. The details follow.

    It’s a homage to one of my favourite authors, Cordwainer Smith pseudonym of Paul Linebarger.

Comments are closed.