Curtain up!

First of all, big news: my very first ever published poems for adults have just come out in the fall issue (#68) of The Louisville Review, two whole entire poems. I’ve never had any interest in writing fiction for adults, but poetry is another matter.

By the way, The Louisville Review has a “Children’s Corner” for poetry by kids from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Follow this link for submissions information:

And a reminder that I’ll be signing on Friday in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. Details on the website.

Now here we go!

On July 7, 2010, Silver the Wanderer wrote, I’ve heard that the first five pages are the most important in a story, since that’s the part agents/editors/readers see first. But, of course, that’s the part I seem to be having trouble with. I’ve rewritten my beginning once already, and I think I’m going to have to do it again. My beginning just doesn’t seem engaging enough, and I can’t think of a good alternative. I need to introduce the setting, characters, and just enough back-story to leave the reader intrigued – but I can’t figure out the best way to do it. My writing is fine later on into Chapter 1, but the first five pages are really giving me a hard time.

Do you have any advice for writing beginnings?

First off, I’m hoping this is an apt post for you NaNoWriMo’s out there who are probably all about beginnings right now. Or maybe your beginning is already three chapter behind you. My hat and every other piece of apparel that can be doffed is off to you.

Regarding those “agents/editors/readers,” if the writing slides downhill on page six rather than page five, that’s where they’ll stop, especially the agents and editors. Besides, I don’t think they’re the ones to worry about. You can’t predict what they’re looking for – is it historical fiction or graphic novels or werewolves? – and if the person who picks up your manuscript is feeling grouchy or rushed or any other of a thousand things, you may be a modern Jane Austen and he’ll still send you one of those horrible form rejection letters.

But of course you’re right about needing to grab the reader fast. Some of you – probably many of you, since you’re book lovers – are forgiving readers. You give a book a chance to hook you. You may stick it out for twenty pages, fifty pages. I suspect some of you never abandon a book. Don’t write your beginnings for readers like you. Write them for reluctant readers who have to be persuaded to hang in.

I included two chapters on the subject of beginnings in Writing Magic, which you may also want to look at.

My worst beginnings nightmare was in The Two Princesses of Bamarre. I needed to start the story and also to introduce an epic poem that runs through the book, but the epic poem has a different story line from the main one. I rewrote the beginning umpteen times. It took me so long to figure out that the book went into bound galleys with a messed-up beginning, which hurt it in reviews.

I just compared the two beginnings. In the bound galleys, I started with a fragment of the poem and gave a little of the poem’s back story before moving into the tale of the novel. In the published edition I also began with the poem but then started the primary tale immediately. The difference is just a few deleted sentences, yet one version is smooth, the other bumpy. And although the change was slight, it took me weeks and quite a few intermediate attempts to get there.

So here are two beginnings suggestions. The first is to trim down to the essentials. Be ruthless with every word, phrase, and sentence.

The second suggestion is to delay the back story. Involve the reader in the front story first. Depending on what you’re writing you may need to introduce the back story quickly, maybe in the first page even, but not in the first couple of paragraphs.

This is formulaic, and if you find another way that works, certainly go for it. But in general, at the beginning, if you can, do only one thing. Think of a hypnotist (which is what an author is, in a way). She’s wagging the watch on its chain in front of her subject’s eyes, a single watch, never more than one or the trance won’t take hold.

The easiest element to start with is probably action. If you throw your characters right into a rush of events, your reader is likely to dive in too. For example, suppose you begin, He shuffled toward me. The reader will instantly want to know who he is and who me is and what the shuffling means – not that you have to explain right away.

But you can start with any facet of storytelling: setting, dialogue, thoughts, feelings, action. This suggests a prompt. (If you’re in NaNoWriMo, don’t try it right now. Wait till December.) The prompt comes from a similar prompt in a book I’ve mentioned before, What If (middle school and above), which is full of writing exercises. Write beginnings that feature each of the elements I just listed, a different beginning for each. For example, a setting beginning might start, How bland the house looked with its tan siding, white shutters, worn welcome mat. How little it gave away.

When you do this, don’t concern yourself with the story that might follow. You’re only exploring beginnings, and you’ll be most free to do that if you don’t have to think ahead.

In my example it’s the second sentence that gets the reader interested. If I’d omitted that and continued on to other bland house attributes, the reader might wonder if he’d wandered into a real estate listing. But if I went on to describe the cheery kitchen and remarked that all evidence had been erased of the day when big sister Barbara added talcum powder to the cake batter, the reader would likely sit down at the table ready to be dished more story.

So the third suggestion is to give the reader a tidbit to worry about. Maybe worry is too strong. Engage may be a better word. In Writing Magic I propose that the reader look at the beginnings of her favorite books, and I propose it again. See how quickly you were grabbed. Examine how the author did it.

At one point in flailing about for a beginning to Two Princesses, I jumped in too deep right away. I don’t want to give the story away, but I began the major crisis on the first page. The reader was too seized, too anxious to endure any of the regular stuff of establishing characters, setting, the world of the story. There are additional dangers in launching at the most critical moment: either everything that follows feels like a let-down or the story has to be cranked up to hysterical heights, and too much hysteria leads to sameness and emotion fatigue. So the fourth suggestion is to start small.

It’s nice when you can make the initial predicament be the same sort of trouble that propels the entire book. If your main character’s major problem, for example, is not fitting in, you might start with an instance of his outsider status. Other kinds of trouble can come along later, but it’s cool, in my opinion, to set out with the underlying issue. Not always possible, but cool.

Sometimes the perfect beginning comes to me right off. It did in Ella Enchanted and The Wish, and that was a gift. Usually I have to revise to get it right, which may not occur in my second draft or, as was true for Two Princesses, my twentieth. And you can’t be absolutely certain of your beginning until the first draft is finished – because you may not know what your beginning needs to do or be until you get to the end.

Here’s another prompt: Think of a story you know well, maybe a fairy tale or a myth, but not a book whose written beginning is lodged in your memory. Or you can think of a well-known character, like Sherlock Holmes, or even a historic figure, like Houdini, whom you can fictionalize. Write three beginnings to go with the tale or the character. For example, you might choose “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Write at least two pages for each one. If you like, pick one and keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Yay, first comment.=D

    This is certainly very apt for NaNoWriMo!=D I'm feeling a lot more confident about revising my story now. Personally, I think its utter rubbish so far, I've always found, much like Silver, beginnings to be hard work.

    I have to say, the start of Ella was definitely magic.=)

  2. Thanks so much for this post! Yes, it was very in time for Nanowrimo. I've gotten my foot in "the story door" as you put it once, but these are definitely some good points to keep in mind.

  3. Wow! Thanks so much for the awesome answer! For my book, I think I began too slowly and spent too much time setting up the story. I tried deleting the first ten pages or so and starting at the point where the story really beginnings, and that seemed to work pretty well. Now it's just a matter of polishing that scene to make it more engaging.

    Thanks again! And good luck fellow WriMos! 😀 *goes back to writing*

  4. In the story I just finished,basically everything changed from the beginning to the end; the characters changed, the plot changed, and the goals of the characters changed. This post will be immensely helpful when I revise. My story definitely began too slow . . . but without it my story never would have been, so I value it. I'm almost sad to take it away, because thanks to it, I have an awesome story (or so I think!). Thank you so much for this post. Also, it is helpful for my NaNo beginning as well. 🙂

  5. I am going to tell you the one book I have ever read that I HATED the beginning to. Okay, here it is,(please, if you love this book, don't be offended, I love it too) 'The Theif Lord' by Cornelia Funke. I know, I know, it has all the things that should make a good beginning, but it's too good.
    My advice on writing a good beginning is to do it as a prologue. To write a good prologue, there are rules.
    Rule #1: Give LOTS of detail,but don't give many names. This gives a bit of mystery, while still providing some basic information for your story to run on.
    Rule #2: NEVER, EVER, EVER turn a prologue into a chapter. IT IS A DIFFERENT THING.
    Rule #3: Make sure that the publisher puts it in a fancy font, so that the reader will notice, and read it instead of skipping over it.
    Rule #4: Just in case the reader does skip over it, do not put any information that you need to know to understand the story in it.
    Rule #5: OBEY THE RULES!!!

    Also, remember the timeline, format and style of your story.

  6. First off: Congrats on the poems! That is so awesome! (Thanks for the link too, I'll have to check that out…) I'm not much of a poet myself, but hey, why not try?
    In truth the first four chapters of my Nano are now behind me, but this post will definately come in December when I start editing. The beginning normally comes so easy to me but not with my Nano this year. I had to really think on it. But I like a challenge every once and a while.:)
    Thanks again for the post, Ms. Levine, and congrats on your poet-ness. 🙂

  7. Congratulations on the poems and thanks for the mention of them taking kids' poems – I'm going to share that information with my daughter's teacher as they have just started poetry.

    And your husband's pictures are lovely with interesting framing and perspective! In the current set I think I like the fence line the best – reminds me of our honeymoon in Vermont. 🙂

    For beginnings, there is an Annotated Charlotte's Web that shows the beginnings that EB White went through for Web that is very interesting. I *love* the beginning of Ella Enchanted, it is one of the books I studied when trying to figure out what kinds of "voice" I liked at the start of books. 🙂

    (Oh, and I also loved your comment that even if you are Jane Austen if your reader is rushed or in a bad mood you can get one of those form rejections.)

  8. I'm currently reading Rick Riordan's "The Lost Hero", and if you want an example of an awesome beginning, you should deffinitely read it. I hope I'm not spoiling anything by explaining what I mean . . . after all, it's all on page 1! Anyway, the main character wakes up with complete amnesia, so not only is the reader curious (Who is this character? Where is he?
    And why?) but you get a really cool description of the surroundings and the otehr characters.
    Obviously, you can't start every book you write whith amnesia, but it's a cool beginning to study :).

    Oh, and congratulations about your poems, Ms. Levine! Thanks for the link, too . . .

  9. @Jenna – That's funny because one of the classic "do not do" starts to science fiction (because it has been done so much) is to have someone wake up in a completely white room with amnesia. 🙂 Just goes to show that when done well, anything goes!

    But, come to think of it, when I was studying beginnings, most of my favorite ones broke the rules. Ella Enchanted, for example, opens not with action but with the character telling (as in show vs. tell) back story about how she got her curse.

    (Do you agree, Ms. Levine? I think the next scene, is more "show.")

    And I *love* the beginning of Ella. I have found that kind of start, one that orients me as a reader, draws me in faster than action.

  10. What great advice, thank you! I just opened up my copy of Writing Magic for the first time last night. I can't wait to dig deeper and learn more.

    It's nice to know that writers like you don't get it right the first time either! As for my current wip, I may have started the story too soon. If so, I'll fix it in subsequent drafts. For now, I'm leaving it!

  11. Wonderful suggestions. I really like the idea of giving the reader something to worry about. What a great hook.

    Thank you – if I can only remember all these things when I go back to revise the first chapter of my WIP!

  12. Great post, Mrs. Levine!
    To Julie Musil- I know exactly what you mean! I haven't read a writing book like Writing Magic since, well, ever. 😀
    Also, congrats on the poems! I have never ever been much of a poet- I like fun little rhymes more than rythmic, more free-verse stuff.

    Quick question- I have a beginning that starts as sort of a cross between a prologue and a flashback, then in the next chapter skips ahead two months. I fill in the reader later about what happened during those two months (mostly because I don't want to write it all out!) but is this bad form?


  13. My favorite beginning at the moment is the beginning 2 chapters of _The Hunger Games_ by Suzanne Collins. In a very small amount of time and pages, we are introduced to the world and our main characters, and swatted immediately with a pressing problem – AND given several very good reasons to like the MC.

    Just a general question for people: when you read a beginning, do you like to jump right in, or be eased into all the new and different stuff? Are you willing to flounder a bit before it makes sense, or do you want everything cleared up and laid out on the table right away? I tend to be of the former category, but I know a lot of folk that don't agree, and I'm interested in hearing opinions.

  14. @ Jenna Royal
    Oh my gosh I've read "The Lost Hero" not only is the whole book awesome but the beginning is so good. He gets right to the point while still having a ton of details. As soon as he described Leo and Piper they became like real people in my head. Rick Riordan is awesome with that sort of thing.
    @ Rose, I'm fine with floundering for a while. I'm used to reading fantasy books where you are thrown into a completely different world from our own where nothing makes sense right away and the reader has to figure out how to cope with this world alongside the MC. So in other words I like to jump right in and flounder.

  15. To Rose,
    It all depends on Author preference. I read lots of books that you learn with the character and I like those. But then again I once read a long book with lots of description at the beginning and liked that too. So if you want the reader to feel like they know everything about the world you can take the detailed approached but if you want them to learn with the character (or if you yourself are) then you can let it sink in as the story goes along.

  16. Rose- Honestly? I'd much rather get on with the story, and I typically start my stories that way too. But, to each his own. I've read several books with engaging beginnings that don't jump in on the action right away.
    Good call on the Hunger Games, at least book one. That's a good book!
    (Most of Suzanne Collins's writing is)

  17. Erin Edwards–I hadn't thought about the telling at the beginning of ELLA ENCHANTED. I think I do that often in beginnings. I did in TWO PRINCESSES and FAIREST and others, and I didn't even talk about that in the post. Thanks for bringing it up.

    Maddie–I think skipping two months can work, but it's always questionable to make a choice in order to avoid writing something out. On the other hand, it's completely understandable!

  18. First of all, congratulations on your published poems! I know how fond you are of poetry. 🙂

    Also, please thank your husband for sharing his photography with us. I enjoyed going through his galleries.

    @Erin (QUOTE: "Just goes to show that when done well, anything goes!")
    So true. I just read this blog post over on the Roving Editor about how prologues are a no-no, but Mark Twain pulled it off. 😉

    @Rose, on the flounder v. on-the-table issue, I think it depends on the effect the author is going for (i.e., it depends on the story).

    As for beginnings, I've noticed a common habit we writers have is to bury the lead—to smother our hook with blah blah blah. It seems it's usually hidden 300-500 words in, which is unfortunate, since that's usually all you'll get from a reader flipping through books in the bookstore. The first 300-500 words need to draw the reader in, not bore them.

    I like to write my first draft, then let it sit for a month (or two). Then I go back and read the beginning. By then I'm detached from the story enough that it's easy to spot and hack away the needless bits, or figure out how to shove some of the information into later chapters.

  19. Also, good luck to you NaNo-ers! I'm doing better than I expected this year, and am attending a write-in this Sunday. 🙂

    One thing that's a bit annoying though, is that my novel is trying to become its own creature. I have an outline planned and everything (which I've been working on for over a year), but now characters and subplots I didn't know about are show up. What the heck!

  20. @April – Funny prologue by Mark Twain!

    And – as I even just used one! – the Roving Editor's post reminded me of another forbidden thing in writing thing that I think is going to change – use of the exclamation mark.

    You will often hear that you should never use an exclamation mark, that the force of the sentence you wrote should be enough. While I don't think we should see as many in books as we do in emails and texts, I think readers are going to expect them more (or they'll think the author is mad at them.) 🙂

    Oh dear, I hope that emoticons don't start appearing in books.;)

  21. @Jenna, I love The Lost Hero! Rick Riordan is a master of beginnings, especially his first sentences. They're always so unexpected! I love all his books. 😀
    @Rose, although I prefer to jump right into the story, I'm not one to put a book down and give up if it doesn't get off to a fast start because I know it's bound to pick up somewhere. If I truly end up not liking the book, I just won't read the sequel (since most of the books I read are part of a series).

  22. This post was very helpful.
    I have a question about endings though. I decide if I like a book mostly based on how it ends and how it leaves me feeling, but I can never get that sense of closure in my stories.

  23. Erin Edwards–I'm convinced emoticons will start showing up in books, but not, I hope, in historical fiction or fantasy;)!!!

    Marissa–I'm not sure if I already have a question about endings on my list, so I added yours.

  24. Unfotunately, I think it would be absolutely _horrible_ to have emoticons in novels.

    "You're such a riot!" Jack laughed, clutching his stomach and LOLing. 😀
    "Couldn't help it," John said, nonchalantly putting his hands in his pocket. 😛


  25. @F – I so agree! It absolutely ruins the story. It's like it's . . . fake, and not nearly as interesting and easy to get caught up in. At least not for me. I for one do not want to read books like that!

    @Rose – I think that the whole floundering vs. on-the-table thing really depends on the book. I'm more used to the floundering, because that's the approach in most of the fantasy books I read, but on-the-table is fine too in some types of books. I think the on-the-table offers room for more strategy and planning, where the floundering is a little more mysterious, exciting, and chaotic.

    How important are first sentences? I know that some people only read the first sentence of a book to decide whether to read it or not, and obviously it is the first thing in the book that you notice. Some magazines, too, have sections where you submit the first sentence of your favorite book. How much do you need to agonize over it?

  26. @F- You know, I was struck with the idea of the word 'loling', and really, suppose every new book used this in a few years, this might just become a real word which people are comfortable writing, and thus, reading, even in historical fantasy and such.

    As for first sentences, I don't think, generally speaking, that they captivate people. Many books open with vast, lengthy descriptions, before introducing dialogue, and frankly, its rather dull. But really, they all turn out to be good reads, once we're in the middle of the action. But I prefer it when an author throws us right into his/her world, with action or dialogue, or narration, like Ella Enchanted=), and save the descriptions for later.

  27. @F That's pretty funny! It also makes for an interesting exercise because I could see how you could write that out in more "book" grammar. It made me think that perhaps emoticons are a shortcut for not having time to find exactly the right words. And if I took as long to write my emails as I do when I work on a passage in my book…well, my inbox would be worse than it is!

  28. Mysterygirl – I think there was a post on losing interest in stories, but I'm not sure where it is. I'm afraid I can't offer much help, as I have my own "snips and beginnings" folder on my computer, filled with stuff that doesn't have a middle and end.
    On the first-lines thing: sometimes I MIGHT put a book back if the first line was particularly awful. By that I mean if it revealed something about the story or the MC that made me think uh, no, I do NOT want to spend more time with that person… But no, I wouldn't leave it because it was badly written.
    On the other hand, I do love a nice first sentence that is "quotable" and makes me laugh or wonder. It won't make or break my opinion of the book, but it is worth something.

  29. The text-speak reminds me of a funny joke.

    A middle-aged woman texted her daughter in college: GRANDMA JUST DIED. LOL

    She thought "lol" was an abbreviation for "love you lots."

  30. @Rose I too prefer to read a story that jumps straight in the action right away. I want some sort of conflict to be happening from the first line if not the first 500 words. This is because my interest is peaked right away and makes me feel curious about what will happen.

    However, there where some stories that started off more slowly and I was still hooked enough to read on. Usually the description itself seemed a bit strange or unexpected, like Eragon's famous first line: "Wind howled through the night carrying a scent that will change the world." It doesn't begin right in the middle of the action, but hints of a conflict of epic proportions. Also it makes me quite curious, what does such a scent smell like?

    I really like this post. Usually my beginnings do capture interest right away, its continuing I have trouble with. However, it was nice to recognize some things I was doing and to have new techniques if I ever get stuck.

    I really like the post before this one. The one with the prompt on a carpenter that makes a magical cabinet for the king. I am definitely going to try that. One thing that worries me though is how to maintain the interest of the reader as he builds the magical cabinet. . . perhaps having some kind of emotional conflict? Or maybe the act of making the cabinet is highly dangerous and action-packed? Hmmm. . .

    Anyways, thanks on the post of villains. Usually my villains where really despicable even when they had good traits, and I wondered how to make them more likable because even I found them to irritating to listen to. Making a villain fascinating company is something I never thought to do and will be interesting to try.

    Thanks for a great post!

  31. There are some novels–I tend to find this more in British authors' works–where the first several pages are used to simply set the scene, especially when the setting has a large effect on the action later. A good example of this is in Robin McKinley's Spindle's End: in order to provide a better understanding of the action, she describes the country in detail, how the magic in that country is tangible, and how this affects the way the characters interact with their surroundings. It can be frustrating to wait out all the descriptions, but it's all the more rewarding when you get through it and can see the picture that has been painted for you.

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