Before we get started, just a reminder of my poetry event with other poets at 3:00 pm on April 14th at Byrd’s Books at 126 Greenwood Avenue in Bethel, Connecticut. As I said last time, these won’t be poems for kids, but I’d love to see you there, and there will be time to chat.
Now for the post.
On January 4, 2018, Morgan Hanna wrote, What are some tips on writing the very beginning of a story? I’ve always had trouble with beginnings. I usually end up staring at a blank page and wondering why the words won’t come. I worry about starting too soon or too late, whether I should use dialogue, action, or description as an opening line, and how to make my beginning flow smoothly into the rest of my story without feeling forced. Does anyone else struggle with this, or has anyone overcome it?
Christie V Powell answered, Oh yes, beginnings are the hardest for me. Some general bits of advice that seem to help:
Don’t stress about the first draft. Give yourself permission to write bad stuff. This is especially true of the opening line–in your finished draft, you want to give it lots of attention. To get started, you can use “once upon a time” or “there was” or any cliche thing you want, as long as it gets the juices flowing. It’ll probably change later even if it was brilliant.
Instead of starting with story, I sometimes start with a line or two of my vision for the story. For instance “Two families escape persecution for their abilities to travel through dreams” or “The stereotypical Chosen One is a young widow with toddlers in tow.” You can also start by summarizing your ideas for the first scene: “Mira shows off her climbing abilities, has some dialogue with her sister, and hints of danger… right before the griffin carries her away!”
Sometimes switching from computer to hand-and-paper works for me. It doesn’t always work as well for beginnings, because it’s easy to cross out or start over when coming up with a first line, but sometimes the change in medium gets things moving.
And Bethany wrote, Make the first sentence something interesting, something that grabs the reader’s attention right away. The first sentence can even have foreshadowing to something later in the story. I’ve done that. Hint: don’t pull out the paper until you know what the first line will be. Once there’s a few words filling the blank space, the page is less terrifying.
I am heart-and-soul with Christie V Powell. Not that I’ve always followed her advice! But it’s a waste time fussing over beginnings at the beginning, as if, once we get the first pages right, the rest of the story will scroll out like magic; characters and plot lines won’t change; our perfect start will set the course perfectly.
Oh, how I wish that were true.
Occasionally I have gotten the first scene right painlessly–but not the second and/or the third, which are still part of my beginning. I always have to revise later-much later.
We can start by typing or writing, blah-de-blah-blah. Here I go again. I think I’ll call my main character Quasia, and I’ll give her a deep dimple on the left side of her mouth. There she is, sitting on the threshold of her mother’s house idly watching a gaggle of geese peck holes in the lawn.
And I know, because I have a glimmer of what my story will be, that a peddler is about to ride up, so I make him do that, and I’m not at all sure if this is the right moment for his arrival, but I bring him in because I want to get things going. Without thinking too deeply, I make his mule skinny, and I give him a dimple on the left side.
And I’m in. Blah-de-blah-blah will almost certainly not (though who knows what kind of story I’ll wind up with) pass muster as a beginning in my final draft, but it succeeded in putting me at ease. The blank page is beginning to fill up. I’m a little less scared, and I am absolutely not allowing myself to criticize what I’ve written.
I keep writing. The story begins to develop, and I discover that my peddler is such a sweetie that he would never let his mule be hungry, even if he has to go without. Either I make a note for my revision or I jump back and make the mule fat and the peddler emaciated. (The note for revision is preferable, because the girths of the two could change yet again–or one of them could disappear entirely).
In one of the many books and articles I read during my long writing apprenticeship, I found the suggestion that, when we get tight and scared, we cover the screen or actually close our eyes and type. I’ve done it, and it helps to shut down the judgment monster. (Weirdly, I also type more accurately with closed eyes!) When we finally open them, we can look at what we wrote, but we may not, on pain of–name your poison–revise.
This is embarrassing, but for the sake of the blog, here is the beginning of the first draft of Fairest (which, just saying, I wouldn’t have if I didn’t save what I write!):
Areida wasn’t pretty. Her dark hair was lank and stringy. Her skin was white as day-old snow. She blushed easily but unevenly – a splotch of pink on one cheek, across the bridge of her nose, along her jaw line, and above her delicately arched eyebrows. Her neck was a trifle long, causing her brother Stefan to call her Giraffe. She resembled a giraffe in more ways than just her neck. Her brown eyes were huge, and her eyelashes were thick and splendid. Her expression had the tentative sweetness of a giraffe.
In the final draft, the book is told in first person. Areida isn’t the MC, and there is no brother Stefan. Plus, the description of the eventual MC isn’t accurate. Also, I start with my MC’s backstory. But at that point, when I wrote the paragraph, I had no idea of all the changes that were on the way. It was a beginning that got me started.
Moving on. Part of Morgan Hanna’s question was whether she should use dialogue, action, or description as an opening line.
Yes. Any of the above, plus thoughts and backstory. Not only in a first draft. Any of the above will work in a final draft. The traditional advice, which is still offered, is to begin in medias res, which means in the middle of action. But not every great book does. Tuck Everlasting begins with description. James Michener’s Hawaii (high school and up) begins with a long chapter of geology! And it was a huge best-seller in its day.
How dull it would be if every story began formulaically in the same way.
It’s conceivable that we fiddle and agonize over the beginning out of fear of the fiddling and agonizing to come when we move into the middle. For many writers–I’m one!–fretting is part of the territory. Some books flow reasonably well, but some are bears. I’m resigned–and happy–because struggle is a writer’s life, as well as the life of our characters!
Here are three prompts:
∙ Keep going with my story of Quasia, the geese, the dimples, the peddler, and the skinny mule, but don’t change the blah-de-blah-blah until you finish and revise.
∙ Write a story of whatever happened to you yesterday. Start with the first thing you remember someone saying.
∙ Write three beginnings of the Greek myth of Helen of Troy. In one, start with action, in another with setting, in the last one with a thought.
Have fun, and save what you write!