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.
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.