"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Right Place to Start Your Book

Note: This post first appeared on the Blue Sage Writers blog on January 14, 2010.

A good hook is essential to any book, but a terrific first line, first paragraph, or even first page won't save a story that begins in the wrong place. Neither is anything more disappointing to a reader who bought a book based on that terrific hook, only to find the story fading away after a few pages or chapters. (I won't get into the burning question as to why such a book was published in the first place. That's fodder for another blog.)

A book will sometimes cover the entire life of your main character from birth to death. That doesn't mean you should start it when the character emerges from the womb. More often than not, a story will be only a brief span of time in a character's life–a few days, weeks, or months. Hopefully, you have chosen that time frame because something is about to happen that will change your character's life forever. It will be a turning point. Don't wait until page 100 to start this moment of change. Starting a story too soon, or too late, will result in weighty narrative and flashbacks that will slow your story to a crawl. You'll get lost, confused, discouraged and might even give up on the book entirely. Chances are, if it isn't working for you, as the writer, then you haven't found that moment of change and the best way to present it.

The scene that you open your book with should set the stage for what is to follow, foreshadowing the direction the story will take. This beginning should make a promise to the reader that will be fulfilled at the end. In today's fast-paced world, the reader will want to immediately see the conflict that will be the crux of the story, and one that will be resolved. This opening scene should be one that encapsulates the theme, even if you only demur to it. The tone might even hint at an array of outcomes that will entice the reader on.

It is also important before you write one word, that you know where your character has been, where he is going, and how he will get there. You need to know your ending before you can craft a truly effective beginning.

Even though you might have a great hook that won "The Best Hook" in some nationwide writer's contest, if you can't keep the momentum going, you haven't started your story in the right place.

Here is a wonderful beginning from Carlos Ruiz Zafón's new book, The Angel's Game. See if this draws you into the story and then ask yourself if he has foreshadowed, promised, offered conflict and motivation, hinted at a theme as well as the sense that the character, who we meet in the next paragraph, is about to face the moment that will change his life forever.

"A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he coverts the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price."


Stef said...

Thanks so much for this. I've been struggling with where I should start my work in progress, and it really helped me. :) Absolutely wonderful.

Linda Sandifer said...

Stef, I'm glad it was useful for you. It's definitely not an easy thing, no matter what. Good luck!

Kat Harris said...

What's that saying?

In media res.

This is a great post for writers. It's not a topic I see covered a lot, but it's something everyone writing needs to know.

Eunice Boeve said...

I had a hard time getting into this book I'm working on now because I couldn't get a focus, even though I knew the character's past, I just couldn't "feel" or "see" him. So I just kept plugging away, mostly writing awful stuff, and then discouraged I'd leave it, often for long periods of time-like months, coming back to it, rewriting, etc. and then, there it was,suddenly I knew his problem, even though I already knew his problem, this time I KNEW his problem. Isn't writing a crazy way to spend one's time, but oh, how I love it, when it works. Eunie

Linda Sandifer said...

Yes, writing is certainly a crazy way to spend your time. :)

B.J. Anderson said...

This is spot on! Great post.

Elizabeth said...

I just love writing, but whenever I read what I've written, I think that it's awful (my friends think it's awsome, but I'd rather have them criticize it).

Linda Sandifer said...

I understand where you're coming from, Elizabeth. It's easy to know the rules, but harder to "see" if you're pulling it off in your own writing. It's easier to see it in someone else's work. It's always nice to get good "constructive" critiques.