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Story Structure – Part 3: In the Beginning…

You can find parts one and two of this series here:
Part 1: Story Structure: Beginnings
Part 2: Story Structure: Revisiting the Three-Act Structure

In the Beginning…

There is perhaps no other part of story or novel that the writer agonizes over more than the beginning. Oh sure, we think about the middle and the end, but really, we all know that it is the beginning of our stories by which the rest of the story will be judged. We write beginnings with echoes of all the “first impression” clichés ringing in our heads. We write and rewrite and revise and wring our hands over the first five or ten pages of a novel, knowing that people will decide whether to keep going, based on that first bit of information. We remember all of the great beginnings we’ve read, and we try to live up to them.

I wish I could say beginnings weren’t that important and that y’all should just relax, but I can’t lie—I think they’re more important than ever in this publishing environment. For the writer pursuing a legacy publishing contract, the beginning is the portion that will make the difference between an agent or editor rejecting the manuscript or requesting a full. For the independent author, the beginning is the portion that will make the difference between a reader sampling and deleting or downloading the full story.

What makes a compelling beginning? It might not be what you think. While I don’t think there’s a specific formula that makes a “perfect” opening to a story, I do think there are some ingredients that are present in the most compelling beginnings I’ve read.

Character

Your beginning should introduce major characters at a fairly consistent pace. Within the first ten percent of the book, I think, I should have a sense of who the major players are, even if they haven’t appeared on screen yet.

DO: Establish your characters’ voices and personalities by showing how they react in your opening scenes.

DON’T: Rely on physical descriptions to do your work for you. A lot of readers like to leave something to their own imaginations. Physical descriptions are okay if they work in context, but it’s far more important to let the reader know what the characters act like than what they look like.

DO: Use the beginning of your story to introduce people who will play significant roles in the story.

DON’T: Drop seventeen names in the first two pages. Too much. Back up and pare down. Even if you have to drop some names and exposition into the opening scenes, try to keep it to a minimum.

Conflict

I mentioned inciting incidents and first plot points in my last two installments of the story structure series. Wherever you choose to place them, and whether you decide to put them in the first 25% or not, your beginning should set up the ultimate conflict of the story.

DO: Start the conflict rolling—the central conflict. Even if you have to start with a smaller conflict, give a sense of the main conflict so that your reader knows what to expect.

DON’T: Cheat. Random conflict with no connection to the overall plot will make your reader feel cheated. It’s one thing to start with random action just to get the ball rolling—that’s fine. But don’t lead the reader on with a significant conflict that has no connection to the real plot unless you plan to return to it and tie it up later. In other words—don’t start with something “bloody” or provocative just to hook the reader.

DO: Give the main characters some kind of obstacles to overcome in pursuit of their goal(s).

DON’T: Worry too much about where the obstacles fall as long as there’s a rising sense of tension. Remember, it’s more about intervals than about pyramids or percentages.

Setting

I think a smooth integration of setting (or worldbuilding) in the beginning of the story is often a stumbling block for writers of speculative fiction. Too many fantasy novels are filled with pages and pages of exposition or backstory before they even get to the character or conflict. But, beginnings are also a wonderful opportunity to give a flavor, promise, and tone to a whole story.

DO: Show us what’s different or unique about the world.

DON’T: Tell too much. Readers are smart, and they like to fill in gaps with their own imaginations. Setting is like salt: A little helps flavor, but too much will ruin a wonderful dish.

DO: Use the tone of the character interactions and observations to build the setting.

DON’T: Rely too much on long descriptive or expository passages, even if they’re hiding in dialogue. Use small doses of specific description where it counts the most, and let the readers imagine the rest.

DO: Use dialogue and writing style to show us what kind of world we’re in. Is it a world of limited resources? Use spare, economic descriptions. Are the characters wealthy and spoiled? Show us how they view those beneath them.

DON’T: Be heavy-handed. One or two mentions of a key element or description are all you need. Again, readers are smart.

And finally, one tip I heard somewhere (but can’t recall where). If you think your beginning is too slow, just drop the first chapter or the first few paragraphs. Basically, chop off the beginning up to where the action starts. See if that helps the pacing of your story. You can always dribble the information from that first portion in later, but quite often, you may realize you don’t even need it.

Bottom line, beginnings are your chance to show readers how awesome your story is going to be, but there’s no ideal formula. For every story that starts in the middle of intense action, there is one that starts with a slow, prosaic build and works. Just try to include some key story elements, and leave the rest to the reader. If you would want to read it, chances are good that others will want to read it, too.

Next Time: Mushy Middle Syndrome.

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6 Comments

  1. Autumn2May says:

    Great article! I keep trying really hard not to go back and edit the beginning of my story (again) and instead finish up the ending. XD I think I’ve reworked the 1st chapter of my story more than any other part of the book. It’s hard to get it right, but I think I’m close. Thanks for the advice! 🙂

    • Autumn2May, I think we all sort of feel like a “broken record” with beginnings sometimes… (Wow, I just really dated myself with that analogy, didn’t I?) Next time, I’m going to talk about middles, because even though we all stress about the first impression, I think it’s often the middles that do us in… 🙂 I bet you’re closer than you think. 🙂

  2. Marius says:

    Thanks so much for this – I really think thee are a heap of aspiring authors out there just looking for a bit of direction (I should know – I’m one of them).

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Bets Davies says:

    Nice. You solidly hit all the important points while keeping us on a sane path. I have a thing against unnecc. or ill placed world building. It needs to somehow relate to the character’s world in the book or I don’t care about it or even want to know about it. I’m glad to see someone preaching less is more on a first chapter. We’re all made so anxious that every element of the story must be in there that we go crazy stuffing everything and the kitchen sink in the first paragraph.

    Autumn2May–Nooooooooo! Don’t do it. Don’t touch the beginning. Don’t touch the first chapter. Move through your ending. Writers fail the most because they get into editing black holes instead of first paying attention to the whole arc and then work slowly closer and closer to the text. Often this leads to texts so over-edited the heart has been excised from them. Plus, until you know your whole arc really well, you won’t even know what the first chapter will include. So why polish what you may shred?

  4. […] two weeks, I’ll look at what your beginnings should include (even if you don’t follow a standard three-act structure). VN:F [1.9.18_1163]please […]

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