Begin as You Mean to Continue

I am going to start right here by saying that all parts of your book are important, beginning, middle, and ending. A reader can quit on you at any point, so you, of course, want the entire book to be as well written and tightly crafted as possible, with strong characterization and clever plot, intriguing twists and details that capture the imagination. However, if your beginning does not jump off the page, if you cannot start your story in a way that grabs the reader and drags them along for the ride, then the rest of your story will never get a chance.

There is a lot of advice available on how to start your story, how to grab those potential readers (including agents and editors). Books on the subject, classes, plus of course the example of all your favorite published works. And there are probably several ways you could effectively kick off any of your own projects–it’s just a matter of figuring them out and then deciding which one works the best for you. As with most things involving storytelling, there is no right answer, just a series of choices with varying impact.

An opening sentence can take various approaches. If you look at classic novels, the types of things we study in school, you’ll notice that many of the openers deal out generalities that apply to the story to come. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”  Or, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” These start to set the scene immediately, signaling to the reader that they will be reading a history, or a novel about courtship and marriage. Others kick off with an introduction to a character through the declaration of an incident. “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm broken badly at the elbow.” This sets the stage for a book about childhood experiences, narrated by Jem’s sibling–we do not know who that is quite yet. But it also signals potential drama; Jem “got his arm broken”, as opposed to broke his arm, which suggests more than a simple accident.

Modern novels, particularly those in popular genres, tend to throw a lot at the reader from the very start. Even more quiet books cram a great deal of information into opening pages, with details and character information blended into the first pieces of action. I suspect writers are acknowledging the impatience of today’s reader, working to win them over before they jump to some other distraction. But while this might be an admirable (and perhaps even necessary) approach, there are a few things to keep in mind when you’re penning those first few lines and paragraphs.

1. Readers want to know who to root for. If you’re introducing your protagonist in the middle of a conflict with a number of other characters, you must make it clear whose side we’re on, and why. Better yet, allow a bit of space to let us know the protagonist before making us stand behind him in a conflict. This is particularly true in fantasy or historical novels, where I often see manuscripts that start in the middle of a battle. Yes, it’s exciting, but who are these people and why do I care?

2. Blend characterization and action together as you move forward into the story. Another common mistake I see is an exciting paragraph or two of action to start the manuscript, followed by three pages of character back story and exposition, or, heaven forbid, a virtual list of characteristics, that throws all momentum out the window. Make those introductions, but weigh your words and leave most of the information to be spread out through the rest of the book. Only give the reader those character details that are vital for the first part of the novel, so you can continue on with whatever exciting or dramatic situation you have used as your opener.

3. Avoid signaling that your opening is not what it seems. Do not give us a past tense description of a harrowing experience and end your opening with a phrase along the lines of “but he soon was to discover just how wrong he was.” This takes the reader out of the book, losing whatever tension and curiosity you’ve developed in those opening paragraphs/pages. It also reminds us that the narrator already knows what’s going to happen–and that the narrator exists. Just let the reader discover that the character was wrong (or whatever) as the book unfolds. Allow them to be surprised. That’s what you want–for them to be anxious to continue to read. Don’t undo the work you’ve done.

Several blogs have been discussing a new book by Sara J. Henry called Learning to Swim, focusing almost entirely on the power of the novel’s opening. I have not read this book yet, but I will say that, after reading the first few paragraphs, I immediately ordered a copy. It is compelling writing, combining tense action with intriguing character development. My response seems to be the consensus. I’m not saying you need to run out and buy this book–and I have no connection to it other than now wanting to read it–but do please read the opening below and think about what the other has achieved.

If I’d blinked, I would have missed it.

But I didn’t, and I saw something fall from the rear deck of the opposite ferry. It could have been a bundle of trash; it could have been a child-sized doll. Either was more likely than what I thought I saw: a small wide-eyed human face, in one tiny frozen moment as it plummeted toward the water.

I was on the late afternoon ferry on Lake Champlain, the big one that takes an hour to reach Vermont. It was overcast and misty, one of those in-between Adirondack days just before summer commits itself, and I’d pulled on a windbreaker because of the occasional chilly gust of wind. I was the only one out on deck, but the closed-in lounge with its narrow benches and tiny snack bar makes me edgy. And I love watching the water as the ferry carves through it. Today the water was calm, with no other boats out except this one’s twin, chugging stolidly in the opposite direction.

What I did next was a visceral reaction to those small eyes I thought I saw. Without conscious thought I vaulted onto the railing I was leaning against, took a deep breath, and dived.

It’s amazing what you can do if you don’t stop to think. The coldness of the water seemed to suck the air out of my lungs, but instinctively I curved upward, fluttering my feet.

In the weekly mini-triathlons in Lake Placid where I live, I’m always one of the last out of the water. The closest I’d ever come to underwater swimming was picking up my hair clasp at the bottom of a friend’s pool, and that had taken two tries. And whenever I see a movie with scenes where the hero has to swim through a long, narrow passageway, I always try to hold my breath. I never make it.

But I was in the lake, committed, and surging strongly underwater. By the time I broke the surface, I’d traveled more than a third of the way to where I’d seen the thing go in. Both ferries had gone onward, in their opposite directions. There was no one in sight. No shouts of alarm, no ferry slowing and turning about.

I kept my eyes fixed on the water ahead, and saw something bob up, too far away. My stomach gave a nasty twist. Then I swam, harder and faster than I ever had in a mini-triathlon with middle-aged tourists coming up behind me.

When I reached what I thought was the right spot, I took a deep breath and dived. The water wasn’t clear but not exactly murky, sort of a blurred translucence with a greenish cast. I didn’t get very far under, and had to try again. This time I saw only a few flat, colorless fish skittering by before I had to come up for air.

Gasping for breath, treading water while I sucked air, reason began to creep in. I wasn’t just cold; I was close to numb. I was alone in a very deep lake twelve miles wide, diving after what could be a bag of garbage somebody didn’t want to pay to haul to the dump. I was none too sure I had enough strength to get to shore. But I dived once more, and this time something led me straight to it.

It wasn’t a bundle of trash. It wasn’t a doll. It was a small boy, arms entangled in what looked like a dark sweatshirt, straight dark hair floating eerily above his head. For one awful moment I thought I was looking at a corpse, but then I saw a small sneakered foot kick weakly. By the time I got close enough to grab a handful of sweatshirt, I’d been without air far longer than I’d ever managed to hold my breath. watching underwater scenes in movies. My throat was convulsing in an effort not to suck in water instead of the air that wasn’t there.

Troy Chance, the book’s narrator, discovers she has saved a little boy named Paul. Other than telling her his name, he is completely silent, leaving her to search for his parents with few clues to go on. When no one steps forward immediately, having missed their child, the situation grows more suspicious and Troy decides to find out what led to Paul falling off the ferry.

All that aside, think about what you’ve learned in those opening paragraphs, the details of setting and character that Henry includes even as you wonder what fell in the water, and what will be the result of the narrator’s rash leap off the ferry. Think about what makes you want to read a book–any book that drew you in immediately. And keep those things in mind when you’re writing–and revising–your own opening pages.

Above quotes take from: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry.

2 thoughts on “Begin as You Mean to Continue

  1. It sometimes helps to go on, write the rest of the story, and then come back and revise the opening so that it will draw the reader into the story.

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