An Honest Promise of a Great Beginning
With 2013 winding down, the New Year is almost upon us. I figure this is a pretty good time to talk about beginnings. Well, it’s my excuse, anyway!
In a way I have been investigating beginnings my entire first year in VCFA — both through my critical and creative work. After two semesters, 100+ books consumed and/or re-read closely, ten intense packets, and thousands and thousands of words produced (not counted), all I really have to show for it is what my advisor and I think is a solid beginning of one novel and a first chapter I like of another one. It might not seem like a lot. But it feels like enough right now. It is a beginning.
But what’s a beginning, anyway? This is an arguable point and should not be taken as a rule exactly, more as a guideline, but I have discovered a typical YA novel usually takes between 40 and 60 pages to get rolling.
Not that these pages are a space to wander! Not in a final draft, anyway.
A reader picks up a book, hoping to be vowed and converted, lost and found in the story’s world. The beginning of the story will tell the reader whether or not she will find the magic she is looking for. In introducing a world and a cast of characters, a writer makes a promise: this is the kind of tale I am about to tell. Ideally, that promise is made in an enticing way that keeps the reader turning those pages, beyond the first few chapters. Introduce a tense world with gripping characters and make honest promises while keeping the reader rooted in the story every step of the way: how do great writers accomplish so much with their beginnings?
Here are the answers I have discovered, in a list:
1. A great character with a yearning
I keep coming back to it, don’t I? The character has to want something. Without yearning, desire, dream or need, there is no story. And the writer needs to get it in right there in the beginning. By the time the reader is done with the opening, the character’s desire should be clear in her mind. If the beginning includes at least a hint of the protagonist’s inner need too, so much the better.
2. A great character who is suffering, or lacking, somehow
Can you think of some stories that start with the protagonist who is just fine, thank you very much? Maybe. But in my favorite stories, the kinds that clutch at my heart from the beginning,the main character doesn’t just want something, he’s in quite a fix, he’s drowning (metaphorically speaking, most likely, but still). The problem does not always need to be a physical one. It can be an internal lack: for example, young Anna missing a mother in Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah Plain And Tall; the absence of songs in her household. For me, the stories where the main character suffers from some kind of injustice are hardest to resist. Think Harry Potter living in a cupboard, think princess Ani betrayed by her best friend and lady-in-waiting in Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl, think Eleanor in Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park having to deal with a clueless mom and a jerk stepfather. Grrrr.
3. A great character with some spunk and some capacity
Give me yearning, give me suffering, but then give me something to balance that out. Your great main character should have some spunk and/or some kind of inner (or outer) strength, some ability, maybe some talent, quick thinking, a sense of humor, or maybe even just self-awareness. Along with some flaws, a desire and a heap of trouble to bury your protagonist in, it’d be nice to also have something for the readers to hang our hopes on. Incidentally (and probably obviously), the beginning is a good time to introduce some other characters, potential friends and foes, even if minor ones at first. It is in interacting with them that your protagonist’s qualities and desires should shine through.
4. A great image
A powerful beginning tells the reader as little as possible. With exposition reigned in and revealed in bits and only when appropriate, a good beginning will show the reader all of the above elements I have discussed — the protagonist’s yearning, her flaws and her great qualities, along with the high stakes and the danger. Think back to your favorite books, and chances are, you’ll discover that their beginning has a strong image that vividly shows the world, the character and the danger. One of the best examples of such an image come from Paolo Bacigalupi’s dystopian novel The Ship Breaker, where the main character Nailer, almost drowns in an oil pool, but survives using his wits and his drive. The almost-drowning scene is not an inciting incident, it is a true introduction to the character and his world, but what a heart-pounding one! Another image from that particular story’s opening is one of a beautiful slender “clipper ship” made with new technology. The ship symbolizes Nailer’s dream and provides a great contrast to his harrowing reality. Think about your protagonist’s desire and the dangers she faces. Can you show these things with unique and powerful imagery?
5. A question
A strong opening foreshadows the rest of the narrative by introducing a taunting question, either stated or implied, a question the reader will hope to find an answer to by the end of the story. Such a question, again,often has to do with the character’s desire, and/or the danger she faces. Will Angel, a teenage prostitute from Martine Leavitt’s beautiful novel in verse My Book of Life by Angel, stay off the drugs and find her way back home? Will Amir free himself of childhood guilt? (From Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner). Will the girl get the boy?
There are many books, posts and articles out there in the writing world, talking about “hooking” the reader. But thinking of beginnings as “hooks” can lead to a writer being manipulative. It can tempt a writer to introduce a shiny event or a clever metaphor that has no real relevance, or to try and make a character into something they are not. If the promises made in the beginning are not carried out in the rest of the story, the reader will know and the book will fall short. The above suggestions are not a formula, they are guidelines to keep in mind as you dig deep and search hard for your character’s truth, for your story’s soul.
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