Monday, April 26, 2010

We have to begin somewhere

Last week I focused on can make good or bad endings. Well, even though you need to make the reader want to return for the next book, it's even more important to capture their interest to want to read the book to begin with.

Beginnings can either make or break the readers view of the story. It is said that the average person takes five seconds to form an opinion on a person or place after the first view, the same can be said with books. Readers often know what they're in for within the first five pages, so grabbing their attention from the get go has to be the main objective of any writer.

Instead of focusing on what makes a good beginning, let's have a look at some of the train wrecks misguided stories I've seen, and let's see if you've done any of these or have been tempted to.

  1. It was all a dream...
    I bet you can probably name several books that start like this. The writer definitely captures the attention of the reader, drawing them inside the events of a fast paced action sequence. You're sitting on the edge of the seat, wondering whether the hero will make it through (yes, it's only the first chapter, but still they could die... it's been done), and then... and then... the character wakes up.

    All the events that the reader's been following turns out to be nothing more than a dream. So, everything that you've learnt up until this point is worthless and will never be brought up again... so please enjoy this cute animation of a kitten with a duck.

  2. The silly little prologue that makes no sense with the rest of the book and never comes back...
    Just like the dream, but is slightly - somehow - relevant. Some fraction of it may (or may not) appear somewhere throughout the story at which point you'll find out that it was not as near impressive as it was made out to be.

    These beginnings only aim to set up a hook and reel the reader in with promises of big character drama towards the end of the book. Often they are actually a foreshadow of the events that will take place near the end, so when you finally do get up to that point, the writer can head in a totally different direction just so long as they make a brief mention that this happens.

  3. Phone book disguised as introduction
    Once upon a time in the land of Fousuold, in the Barony of Reefutal, King Juujikli consulted his beloved advisor Suolaoud in the matter of Luernua who was betrothed to Juljike after the tragic death of Wearouljdo four Faaulke moons ago...

    This kind of beginning often happen in fantasy stories and is as easy on the reader as swallowing a banjo. Long lists of places, people and customs are rattled off in quick succession like a machine gun loaded with tape worms. If anyone finds any logical reason for mentioning this many people, places, and made up words that require the reader to collect them and create their own dictionary all in the first paragraph please let me know, I am dying to find out.

  4. How I spent my Summer Vacation
    Dramatic event that happened long ago in the retelling of the MC's past. Here, the reader is led to believe that this event had a serious effect upon the characters and plot. In truth it is just an effort to create a backstory that won't be able to fit into the bulk of the book so it is shoehorned at the beginning.

    Yes, the event may prove to be important and may have altered the character (much like being dropped into a vat of radioactive chemical waste would), the true reason it can't be fit into the rest of the book is because it's practically useless to the story that's being told.


    So, your MC is the "Chosen One". For messaihic figure press 1... for deadly battle of intertwined foes press 2... for the only person in the world to stop Armagedon press 3... for dramatic tale of true love press 4... for character getting up, going through an utterly pointless life and dying in a meaningless, undignified death at the end press 5... thank you and have a nice day.

    Prophecy. The easiest way for a writer to join together the tangled threads of a plot, especially if the character has no true purpose and is just ambling through the story. Occassionally this style can be done well, if planned ahead.

    These beginnings usually take the form of Prologues written in fancy italics and doesn't even involve the MC or anyone of specific nature... although most of the times it is the bad guy learning the prophecy that starts the story.

Don't get me wrong, some of these beginnings can be beneficial. Some times they're just not. I can say that I've been guilty of using a couple of these every now and again... believe it or not, I rewrote the entire beginning of my MS to eliminate the dream sequence opening. Have you ever done any of these beginnings? Or, are there other beginnings that you see that you hate, on the other hand, do you like some of these beginnings (because it's okay if you do)?


Stina said...

Yay, I'm guilt free from making these mistakes.

You've missed the one that starts with the mc waking up. :) That only works if she woke up late and she has some major thing to be at which will change her life (or something like that), or she woke up because an intruder is in her room (though the instruder can be the mc's sister who just entered after stealing out of the house to be with her boyfriend. And the only way back in was the mc's bedroom window).

Great post as always!

Unknown said...

LOL, that would be a great start to a story. Can't believe I forgot the waking one.

Angela said...

The beginning of my novel has been the absolute hardest part, but I am happy to report I haven't made any of the mistakes you've mentioned. In my first draft, I made the ultimate mistake--total backstory, which has been remedied. But the rewrites on that first chapter have been many, and all were fierce. Fortunately, I am still very happy with the it gives me more time to concentrate on the opening.

Unknown said...

That's good to hear, Angela. For me, the ending's are always the hard part because I know what I want to say, I just can't seem to put that in words. Keep working on the beginning and I'm sure you'll get there.

Creepy Query Girl said...

awesome list! Mary Cole did a good one too, on beginnings that drove her nuts. She's on

Kayeleen Hamblin said...

This is a fun list. I've written the waking up one, sad to say. It's since been changed. It was so full of cliches that I am ashamed to even look at it. ;)

Thanks for coming by my blog the other day. Nice to meet you!

Kerri Cuev said...

I revised my beginning a gazillion times. I thought I would have an easier time with the ending but was just as crazy, yikes. I try to steer clear of the ones you mentioned. How about in a land far far, kidding!

Anonymous said...

When I was writing as a kid, I used these beginnings because they were easy for me to grasp. Since growing up [a little], I like to think my beginnings have matured.

I absolutely, 100% HATE the dream sequence opening. Come to think of it, I hate the dream sequence ending, too. I know that dreams are easily related to but sometimes, it just seems like a cop-out.

Sorry for the venting but you gave me an avenue to do it in. ;o)

Unknown said...

@Query girl. Thanks, I'll have to check out that list.

@Kayeleen. You're welcome, nice to meet you too.

@Kerri. I'm the same with my beginning. I've been over it with a fine tooth comb and can still find ways to try and improve it.

@E. Elle. That's okay about ranting. I hate the dream sequence, it's just the cheapskate way of giving the reader information (even though I still use dreams throughout my MS, but I would never start or end with one... I've learnt my lesson about that).

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Great post, Cheree! That's a good list of put-me-to-sleep-fast story starters. :-)

Lydia Kang said...

Awesome list. We all have one of these, don't we?

Jennifer Shirk said...

I actually just wrote a beginning that mainly has the character...thinking. Eeep. That will be a definite rewrite. LOL

Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

Great list! Another one: don't start with the weather ("It was a dark and stormy night" is painfully Victorian).

In one version, I started a sequel with a dream to remind the readers about the last book, but edited it out again. As a reader, I don't mind dreams if they are clearly labeled, but hate them if they aren't.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Excellent list! I don't like the waking up intros, but they rank a smidge ahead of the dream sequence. Those are just the absolute worst.

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