Start at the Beginning and Stop at the End

05 Dec

I want to tell you about this dream I had. No. I’m not really going to do that to you. (Though it was completely fascinating and involved Queen Elizabeth II, a 60 foot Viking long boat being launched on the Hudson, and an alien invasion. You’re totally missing out.) I’ve been thinking about beginnings a lot lately. Probably because, for this new(ish) writer, endings still seem a ways off but if I could just get that beginning right …

There are about a million blog posts out there on what a novel needs to do in its opening lines to hook an agent/publisher/reader. A beginning needs to introduce the main character economically, while enlisting the reader’s sympathy. You don’t want to open during the boring bits of life, but you can’t just drop a reader into the middle of a frantic action sequence. Start too long before the inciting incident, and readers might not stick with you until the plot kicks into gear. Start too abruptly and readers won’t know enough about your character to care that her life is being ruined.

There are so many ways to screw up a beginning. Opening with a cliche (like a dream sequence) is just one of them. I think that buried somewhere deep in the cloud is an opening I wrote where my main character was getting ready for a day at the office. Good lord. I can’t imagine anything more boring. When I worked in an office I could barely force myself to get out of bed to get ready, why on earth would I expect anyone to want to read about it?

A friend of mine recently asked if I’d let him read some of my current work in progress. I didn’t hesitate before agreeing (huge progress in itself) but I did re-read that first chapter before I sent it off. It had been critiqued by three very smart writers and one very smart reader. I’d re-written it half a dozen times. At least. I remember the last time I read it I thought it was pretty good. But this time? This time I saw the clumsy exposition and the foot dragging before things really took off. I’m sure it was about 100X better than my first draft, but it was still awfully flabby. I tightened it a bit more and sent it out into the ether. I’m sure it won’t be the last time. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if by the time this book is done it starts in a completely different place..

Do you have any great tips for identifying the perfect starting point? When you’re reading a book, what are things you want to know on page one? Are there any opening cliches that make you put down a book immediately? I’ve heard that some writers work on their beginnings last because they don’t know how things should start until they know how they end. Have any of you tried that approach? That is an awfully long list of questions. Sorry about that. I’m not trying to croudsource my novel, honestly, but if you feel like answering any of them in the comments, I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Posted by on December 5, 2012 in writing craft


4 responses to “Start at the Beginning and Stop at the End

  1. Judith Keim

    December 5, 2012 at 7:39 AM

    I”m not an expert but I would suggest starting your book, getting into several chapters and then going back to that first chapter and (most probably) eliminating it. Most editors I’ve heard speak talk about the usual first chapter being something whose facts can be woven in later in the story. Too much backstory is a problem that turns many of them off. A friend of mine recently reworked a middle-grade story that way and loved the outcome! Like any other part of the writing process, it ain’t easy! So what was that dream again? 🙂

  2. Janis McCurry

    December 5, 2012 at 9:07 AM

    I try to (not sure about level of success) put enough ordinary world in the first chapter to identify w. the character, but then start where that world changes. It’s not the concept, it’s the implementation that’s tricky.

  3. maryvine

    December 5, 2012 at 1:59 PM

    Early on in my writing, I reworked and reworked my first chapter(s) so much that I could hardly move on. I did get better and just moved on, as you can come back and rewrite it after you finish your manuscript – if you really do need to. My first sale in 2007 had my hero waking up from a dream that stemmed from an actual event and it was to show that he was suffering from post traumatic stress. I do believe you have to sift through everyone’s assumtions about what will and what won’t sell. It’s what the whole book is about that keeps one going.

  4. Lynn Mapp

    December 5, 2012 at 7:34 PM

    There is a book called, Hooked by Les Edgertson. It’s all about hooking your readier from the beginning of the book. You might want to check it out.


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